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Opinion Canada’s federal election could be under attack. Are we prepared?

Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on intelligence and national security issues.

Canadian voters are the prime target for election manipulation, warns security intelligence expert Wesley Wark.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canadians have witnessed a steady drumbeat of stern warnings about likely foreign interference in the coming federal election. The Minister for Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, sounded the latest alarm in a news conference Monday, in which she delivered the latest report on election threats authored by the government’s cybersecurity agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which laid out the potential for a sophisticated, co-ordinated and determined effort by foreign state actors to maliciously interfere in the upcoming election.

“Nothing is more important to this government than protecting our democracy and ensuring that our next election is fair, free and secure,” Ms. Gould said.

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Her concern around the Canadian federal election is based on the rising tempo of foreign interference in elections globally, and of technological change that has made cyber meddling easier and cheaper. CSE argues that for foreign adversaries, the potential benefits of cyber electoral interference – which can range from sowing confusion and loss of faith in politics, to trying to steer an election – far outweigh the costs.

The threat was basically non-existent in the 2015 federal election, and the true scale of the threat to the 2019 election and our ability to meet it remain to be seen. But there have been some positive developments around our readiness. There’s more public attention than ever on the issue, and intelligence capabilities to detect and assess threats have been increased substantially. A system to alert the public has been created, based on an intelligence fusion centre and a senior panel of government officials who can independently ring the alarm bells.

But there are still many gaps in our defences. The most important is the wide-open social-media space, with its lack of agreed policing strategy and its known vulnerabilities to fake news and manipulation. Far too little progress has been made by the major social-media providers to ensure that social media is fenced off from election interference, and the government has decried this lack of progress: “I think the platforms feel as if this is something they should be doing on their own,” Ms. Gould said. “I don’t have the confidence that they’re disclosing everything with us.” Still, Ottawa remains hesitant to formulate laws and regulations. Sooner or later, though, something will have to give: Social-media platforms will have to take real and demonstrable action, or the government will have to step in to enforce standards.

Canadian voters are the prime target for election manipulation; social engineering of opinion is the tool. Can Canadians, enamoured of digital devices and social networks, learn to swim in a growing sea of fake and distorted information? The good news is that, according to the CSE report, a majority of Canadians (54 per cent) are at least somewhat confident of their ability to recognize disinformation and fully 74 per cent are seized by a concern about the spread of disinformation online.

Whether Canadian political parties are ready to treat potential foreign interference with the same level of concern is another issue. They face multiple potential problems, like interference with their platforms and advertisements, attacks on the reputation of individual candidates and theft of voter-registry data. The efforts can only become more sophisticated. Are we and our politicians ready for ”deep fakes,” phoney video footage pioneered in the entertainment industry for laughs and now, bolstered by AI, poised to make their more serious debut on the electoral stage?

Yet another troubling question: Do law-enforcement agencies have the backs of Canadian voters? The United States has led the way with stunning indictments of named Russian military intelligence officers involved in the 2016 presidential election hack. Canada has not yet demonstrated any capacity or will to use law-enforcement tools, or even the threat of them, to deal with foreign interference.

Canada also lacks a deterrence strategy, even as its allies forge ahead. A reported U.S. cyber command “hack back” against the Internet Research Agency, shutting down the infamous Russian “troll farm" on the day of the U.S. 2018 midterm elections, may be a sign of a more aggressive pre-emptive strategy that Canada could ultimately follow. This would give some heft to the rhetoric of being ready to confront bad actors. If Canada is as serious as Ms. Gould states about confronting state actors who interfere in our democratic process, this would be a real shot across the bow.

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Good intelligence, adequate warning, public attention, the exercise of judgment in the social-media information space, law-enforcement support, strong cyber protections, deterrence and pre-emption are all important elements of a plan to confront election meddling. The real test will include no dress rehearsals.

Canadians are at least fortunate that we can learn lessons from others as we await the future with some trepidation. France’s efforts to safeguard its 2017 presidential election, for instance, offers rich pickings (some maybe too rich for the Canadian palate). Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team deployed a low-tech, far-from-sufficient, yet potentially high-impact weapon: a mocking, Gallic shrug, in the form of public ridicule of Russian interference efforts that it labelled as amateurish and trivial. Ironic, non?

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