China and Russia are carrying out most of the disinformation campaigns aimed at disrupting elections in democracies such as Canada – a threat that is becoming increasingly difficult to combat, according to a report by Ottawa’s signals intelligence and computer security watchdog.
The Communications Security Establishment warned Wednesday that cyberattacks are on the rise in national elections around the world, including in NATO countries. It said the proportion of elections targeted by cyber threat activity has increased from 10 per cent in 2015 to 26 per cent in 2022.
Most of these attacks are orchestrated by China and Russia and are forecast to increase in the next two years to target countries of strategic significance, CSE said. Canada’s next federal election is scheduled for the fall of 2025, but a campaign could take place before then if the New Democratic Party were to withdraw its support from a pact with the minority Liberal government.
“Cyber threat activity poses a real and growing threat to Canada’s democratic processes,” CSE said. “Voters are the most frequent target of cyber threat activity affecting elections worldwide, and Canadian voters are among some of the most connected in the world, making them a larger potential target for cyber threat activity.”
CSE said heightened tensions between Ottawa and Beijing are “very likely to result in cyber threat activity aligned with that state targeting Canada’s democratic processes or disputing Canada’s online information ecosystem ahead of a national election.”
Bilateral relations with China hit an all-time low after Beijing imprisoned Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig for nearly three years after Ottawa detained Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant. Revelations in The Globe and Mail of China’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections also contributed to soured relations. Canada expelled a Chinese diplomat after The Globe revealed a secret intelligence report showing Beijing had been targeting Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong.
Canada has also been at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime since the invasion of Ukraine.
Even more worrying is that China and Russia are outsourcing cyber disinformation campaigns to third parties such as hacktivists and cyber criminals or using commercial providers and online marketplaces to help obfuscate their operations, CSE said.
The report said researchers at Oxford Internet Institute found 48 instances of states working with influence-for-hire firms from 2019 to 2020, a 128-per-cent increase since the 2017-18 period. Just as concerning is how artificial intelligence is being used to develop “deep-fake” videos or fake social media profiles to spread disinformation ahead of elections, CSE said.
A cluster of fake social botnets can “control online social networks accounts and mimic the actions of real users,” CSE said, noting that a Chinese government influence campaign last March used AI-generated images to “negatively portray” U.S. leaders, including President Joe Biden.
The report said it expects foreign adversaries such as China and Russia to use AI-generated deep fakes in the next federal election in Canada because they see this activity as an “obscure and risk-averse way of impacting Canada’s policy outcomes.”
“Identifying the perpetrators of cyber threat activity targeting elections is becoming increasingly difficult as obfuscation techniques and third-party contracting become widespread,” the report said.
In October, the Global Affairs Canada said MPs, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Official Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre, were the targets of a disinformation campaign known as “Spamouflage” that was carried out by the Chinese government in August and September.
The department said Spamouflage is a tactic that uses networks of new or hijacked social media accounts to post and amplify propaganda messages across multiple platforms.
Global Affairs reported in July that the department’s Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) detected a disinformation operation on WeChat directed against Mr. Chong while monitoring digital traffic for the June 19 by-elections.
According to the analysis, between May 4 and 13 a co-ordinated network of WeChat’s news accounts featured, shared and amplified a large volume of “false or misleading narratives” about Mr. Chong. The MP said about one-third of the WeChat accounts were directly or indirectly tied to Chinese state or state-affiliated accounts.
That same month, Mr. Chong learned from The Globe that Beijing had targeted him and his relatives in Hong Kong in the lead-up to the 2021 election, a revelation that led the federal government to expel a Chinese diplomat behind the effort.
The government later disclosed that former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan had also been targeted by Beijing in 2021 – and that they remained targets.