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Is Canada prepared for the threat from state-sponsored hackers?

Someone is trying to break into the systems that serve as the Internet's skeleton and central nervous system.

The increasingly sophisticated attacks often bear the hallmarks of state sponsorship, with many experts fingering China and Russia. It's likely a matter of time before they succeed.

How long will it take for hostile nations to turn their attention to the West's intelligence documents, the electrical grid and the political system? Oh, wait: they already have.

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Given recent headlines have focused on either American (the Democratic National Committee, former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell) or international targets (the World Anti-Doping Agency), it's easy to forget data protection is a serious Canadian problem as well.

Canada is in the midst of a defence policy review, which may end up mostly focusing on the things we have argued about forever, like which new fighter jets to buy. But war and security threats are moving from the physical world to cyberspace. There are new dangers to be considered and planned for.

The former head of the Canadian Security Establishment, the electronic spy agency, recently argued in a Canadian Global Affairs Institute policy paper that the military should have the authority to go on the cyber offensive. The online world is a different place from 2010, the last time our cybersecurity policy was revamped, says John Adams. He says it would be "neglectful beyond belief" to not arm Canada adequately to safeguard the national interest – and political, economic and social institutions – in "a new kind of war."

Mr. Adams argues that a strictly defensive approach is no longer appropriate. State-sponsored hackers, working for states such as Russia, have grown increasingly bold, and wield extensive capabilities that their national masters may choose to unleash.

It's unclear whether Canada's military and security establishments need to get better at "going on offence" in cyberspace, or should focus solely on improving its defensive game. What's certain is that this is an area of evolving threats. Canada needs to carefully study and consider the threats, and its options, as part of any review of defence and intelligence policy. To keep the cyber-peace, we need to be prepared for somebody else launching cyber-wars.

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