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Liberals to analyze risks of cyberattacks to protect Canada’s electoral system

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday, February 1, 2017. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told Ms. Gould to lead the government’s efforts to defend the electoral system from cyberthreats, alongside her colleagues at Public Safety and Defence.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government says it is being "proactive" in trying to protect Canada's electoral system from cyberattacks, after events such as the Russian hacking controversy in the recent U.S. election.

On the same day he abandoned his promise to change Canada's voting system, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould in her mandate letter to lead the government's efforts to defend the electoral system from cyberthreats, alongside her colleagues at Public Safety and Defence.

That includes asking the Communications Security Establishment, which helps protect Canadian-government computer networks from hackers, to analyze the risks and release a report, as well as provide advice to political parties and Elections Canada.

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"We do know that key allies have experienced cyberattacks against their political parties so this is a proactive measure, this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate leadership," Ms. Gould said in an interview Thursday.

"There are number of actors that we're concerned about, some are countries, some are criminal organizations."

The directive comes after an unprecedented U.S. election campaign, which saw President Donald Trump concede that Russia was likely behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

According to a declassified U.S. intelligence report released Jan. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to boost Mr. Trump's election chances by discrediting his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The report also warned that Russia would apply what it learned from the exercise to rattle elections held by U.S. allies.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, while saying cyberthreats are a risk, told reporters there is no evidence political parties have been hacked in Canada.

"We do not have information that would suggest that at the present time," Mr. Goodale said Thursday. "If CSE uncovers any of that in their examination, they will make that public."

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The NDP said the initiative is a distraction from Mr. Trudeau's broken promise.

"This is a red herring the Liberals are putting out to distract from their betrayal on electoral reform. Even Minister Goodale concedes we have no indication there is a threat," NDP national director Robert Fox said in a statement.

Security experts, however, say Canada's political system could be at risk.

Scott Jones, the assistant deputy minister of information-technology security at CSE, said he hasn't yet spoken with Ms. Gould but the issue is a "top priority" for the agency.

He said the agency will conduct a comprehensive study of cyberthreats to the electoral system and provide the parties with information on how to avoid vulnerabilities, such as updating software.

"One of the risks is certainly the ability to compromise a system to get information out," he said.

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"You could see cybercriminals looking to use this, to influence, to blackmail, to shame. You could see this being used by organized crime, you could see this being used by states to achieve their outcomes. Many different types of actors."

Canada's former spy chief, Richard Fadden, said he believes political parties in Canada are susceptible to the kind of hacking seen in the United States.

"Yes absolutely. It doesn't have to be a government, it can be hacktivists, it can be criminals," he said Thursday at an event in Ottawa.

Mr. Fadden, who directed the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for five years ending in 2013, said so-called "intelligence gathering" happens all the time. But it becomes problematic, he said, if hackers want to use the information to exert influence.

"I think as long as we're aware of it, it's fairly easy to deal with. The problem I think occurs in a lot of these areas where people are totally oblivious to the possibility of it happening," he said.

"I have difficulty believing that our main political parties now, having seen what's happened in the United States, aren't a little bit more concerned than they used to be."

Retired General Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, cited Russia as the main concern for Canada.

"It's very legitimate to be concerned. What happened to us was unprecedented and awful. We've never experienced that before in the United States. I don't think anyone's experienced it on that scale anywhere," he said.

"No one can claim that was healthy for the political process. At a minimum it corrupts national confidence in the political process, which is really bad for a democracy."

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