With a federal election less than a year away, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is warning voters they will be targeted by online cyberattacks and fake news as Russia steps up its efforts to undermine Western democracies.
“We have taken this into account very seriously in our defence policy,” Mr. Sajjan said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We need to further educate our citizens about the impact of fake news. No one wants to be duped by anybody.”
Mr. Sajjan made the comments while attending a defence and security conference in Halifax, where experts, military officers and politicians representing democracies from around the world spent a great deal of time discussing cyberwarfare.
“When we stand up for human rights, and when we stand up … to nations like Russia who are going against the rules-based order … you become a target,” Mr. Sajjan said, adding that Canada’s decision to protest Russia’s annexation of Crimea has also raised Russia’s ire.
He said the Canadian government has a cybersecurity plan that includes establishing the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security within the Communications Security Establishment, which is focused on collecting foreign signals intelligence.
Rose Gottemoeller, deputy-secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stressed that Russia is not the only country using the internet to spread disinformation, citing a NATO report released Sunday that drew attention to North Korea, China and Iran.
The report, presented Sunday to a NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Halifax, was discussed by NATO’s science and technology committee.
U.S. Democratic congresswoman Susan Davis told the committee that Russian interference continued in the early stages of the recent U.S. mid-term elections, although not on the scale seen during the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump elected president.
Last year, Facebook said hundreds of dubious accounts, likely operated out of Russia, spent about $100,000 on some 3,000 ads about contentious issues such as LGBTQ rights, race, immigration and guns. Facebook later said an estimated 10 million people in the United States saw the ads.
Ms. Gottemoeller, who previously served as undersecretary for international security at the U.S. State Department, said democracies have to be ready to defend themselves – on the battlefield or in cyberspace.
“There’s a lot of creativity among the bad guys,” she said in an interview on Sunday.
As an example, Ms. Gottemoeller pointed to the Canadian-led NATO Battle Group in Latvia, which has been subjected to a steady stream of fake news aimed at undermining the year-old mission.
“The Russians are pumping out a lot of reports about misbehaviour of Canadian troops and how expensive the [battle group] is for Latvia,” she said, adding that Canadian soldiers have taken a pro-active role by letting local residents know why they are there. “It’s a great example of how Canada … has made a difference pushing back against disinformation.”
Pauline Neville-Jones, chairwoman of the Britain-based Advisory Board to Cyber Security Challenge, said Russian operatives use online algorithms to distribute false stories that are aimed at sowing division and distrust of democratic institutions.
“In the case of Canada, [the Russians] would find it very interesting to try to destabilize your relationship with the United States,” said Ms. Neville-Jones, who was David Cameron’s national security adviser before he became prime minister of Britain. “That gets at the sinews of Western democracy. It gets at the sinews of NATO relationships.”
Ms. Neville-Jones said the rise of social media has eroded the influence of traditional media sources, which has left citizens more susceptible to cyberattacks. The best defence against fake news, she said, is to seek other news sources.
She said there was plenty of evidence of online interference in the 2016 U.S. vote, particularly from the Russians.
“Propaganda … has been one of the things they’ve always done,” Ms. Neville-Jones said. “They see international relations as a zero-sum game. If you’re losing, then I’m winning.”