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CSIS director David Vigneault holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 16, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada’s top spymaster says Beijing’s military and intelligence services have been gathering sensitive data on Canadians and warned they are stealing key technology and attempting to intimidate Canadians from mainland China.

In a speech to the Centre for International Governance Innovation on Tuesday, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault said China poses a serious strategic threat to this country.

“In 2020, global news sources revealed that Zhenhua Data Technology, which primarily serves China’s military and intelligence services, had been gathering sensitive data on 2.4 million individuals for several years,” Mr. Vigneault said.

“Approximately 20 per cent of this data was not publicly available and likely accessed via cyberespionage.”

He said Canadian companies have been targeted and some have been compromised, particularly Canada’s biopharma and health sector as well as companies involved in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, aerospace and ocean technology.

“Our investigations reveal this threat has unfortunately caused significant harm to Canadian companies,” he said. “When our most innovative technology and know-how is lost, it is our country’s future that is being stolen.”

Mr. Vigneault stressed that China’s threat comes from its ruling Communist Party and not from the Chinese people and said Beijing is “using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

The CSIS director expressed concern, without directly naming China, that Beijing is attempting to run influence campaigns in Canada that are aimed at intimidating its immigrant communities.

“The relevant remarks of the Canadian side have no factual basis, and China firmly opposes them‚” Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. “We urge some politicians on the Canadian side to abandon Cold War thinking and ideological bias, stop their unwarranted attacks on China, stop spreading alarmist remarks, and do more to benefit China-Canada relations and do more to increase mutual trust between China and Canada.”

This past November, CSIS told The Globe and Mail that national security and the safety of Canadians are being jeopardized by undercover Chinese state security officials and others who are trying to silence critics using tactics that include threats of retribution against their families in China.

CSIS said these illegal activities are part of a global campaign of intimidation. One of the most high-profile efforts is Operation Fox Hunt, directed by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Safety, which has been under way since 2014. Originally launched as an anti-corruption campaign, its principal aim has changed.

In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Vigneault said a “number of foreign states engage in hostile actions that routinely threaten and intimidate individuals in Canada to instill fear, silence dissent and pressure political opponents.”

He referred to Operation Fox Hunt, which claims to go after corrupt Chinese officials and business people but is used to target dissident and critics of President Xi Jinping.

“Those threatened often lack the resources to defend themselves or [are] unaware that they can report these activities to Canadian authorities, including us,” Mr. Vigneault said. “These activities are different from norms of diplomatic activity because they cross the line by attempting to undermine our democratic processes or threaten our citizens in a covert and clandestine manner.”

The CSIS director suggested the agency is hamstrung in some of its activities, particularly “technological limitations” in the 1984 CSIS Act that limit intelligence collection.

Canadian former diplomat David Mulroney said Mr. Vigneault’s speech represents “a very forthright statement in terms of identifying China as the principal threat, and I think that’s entirely appropriate.”

He said he thinks it’s significant that the only two concrete example of dangerous conduct by a country were Operation Fox Hunt and Zhenhua Data Technology.

CSIS is becoming more outspoken under Mr. Vigneault’s tenure. Mr. Mulroney speculated it could represent “mounting frustration” that the spy agency’s political masters are not doing enough to address the problems. Or, he said, it could be that “CSIS sees this as an opportunity that they were created to meet.”

Mr. Vigneault also talked about how legislation underpinning CSIS’s mandate needs to be revised for the 21st century, saying “an act better suited for the threats of the Cold War era greatly impedes our ability to use modern tools, and assess data and information.”

Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, who was previously a national-security analyst in the federal government, said the CSIS director’s speech was making a plea for Parliament to update and clarify the service’s powers to collect intelligence abroad, particularly given how technological evolution has changed where one looks for information.

For instance, as part of its lawful collection of foreign intelligence, CSIS might want to obtain information on an individual within Canada who stores data in another country. Increasingly the courts have said such activities fall outside the service’s mandated powers. “They’re tired of being slapped down by the federal court,” she said.

“We’re the only major democratic country that doesn’t really have a foreign intelligence service … but do we want in some circumstances the service to access foreign intelligence more broadly because the nature of threats are changing?”

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