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The Globe and Mail

Navy scandal overshadows threat from cyberspying

On Friday, a Nova Scotia provincial court judge will sentence Jeffrey Delisle for crimes of espionage against Canada. The world will be watching.

Canada's trustworthiness has been compromised in the eyes of our allies. The Australians and others are tightening their own protocols in the wake of the revelations that a sub-lieutenant was able to pass along to the Russians materials that compromised national security.

The larger question, however, may be whether such Cold War-era tactics pose the greatest threat to the security of Canada and its allies. With The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Twitter all reporting in recent days that they were the targets of cyberattacks from Chinese sources, a Canadian passing state secrets to a handler named "Victor" seems almost quaint.

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Ray Boisvert, who was the assistant director of intelligence for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) before retiring last year, wants to see the book thrown at Sub-Lieutenant Delisle. "It will be years and years before all the negative impacts of this treachery will play themselves out," he said Sunday in an interview.

By combining SLt. Delisle's information with other intelligence, he explained, the Russians could uncover Western agents operating within their borders. In the past, such leaks have led to agents being executed. That said, Mr. Boisvert is confident that Canada's standing within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing community – which also includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – will remain secure. Other members have been compromised at one time or another by a Delisle-style betrayal.

"This is not unique to Canada," he observed. "It won't be the last that affects us, I suspect, and it won't be the last that affects the Americans."

While Mr. Boisvert believes that great powers will continue to ferret out secrets through old-fashioned espionage, he thinks the bigger story is the growing practice of cyberspying.

"That's where the real threat will emerge," he predicts.

In this century, authoritarian regimes may be more interested in, say, the government's deliberations over allowing a Chinese state-owned enterprise to acquire a Canadian oil company than in military intelligence. Stealing intellectual property may be a bigger catch than ferreting out double agents.

Chinese hackers appear to be trying to gain access to the files of journalists at The New York Times and other news organizations who cover that country's business and political leaders. "We are losing upwards of $250-billion a year in U.S. wealth through this kind of illicit cybertargeting of business and industry," Michelle Van Cleave, director of U.S. intelligence during the second Bush administration, told CBC's Brian Stewart on Friday.

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One advantage of cyberespionage, Mr. Boisvert pointed out, is that a security service can work through local freelancers or allegedly independent institutes, allowing the government some level of deniability if hacking efforts are detected.

"The new approach is consistently successful, it's almost completely unattributable and it's extremely low-cost," he observed.

That said, Canada has an unwelcome – and undeserved – reputation for lax control over our borders, especially among some U.S. politicians and officials.

One reason Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to create a continental security perimeter with the United States, while Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tightened refugee regulations, was to answer those concerns.

SLt. Delisle won't be the last Canadian – or Briton or American or Australian or New Zealander – who is caught passing along state secrets for complicated reasons and not much money. Whether we and our allies are able to detect, deter and punish kids at keyboards trying to crawl under firewalls may be the bigger and more vital challenge in the years ahead.

But if someone's life or freedom has been placed at risk because of what SLt. Delisle has done, then let the punishment fit the crime.

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