Federal political parties are now receiving classified security briefings about potential foreign interference in the October election campaign, but Canadian intelligence officials say no specific threat has so far been identified.
The private briefings for political parties by security officials are one element of a plan announced in January that included the creation of a Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force.
The task force is chaired by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a signals intelligence agency, and includes the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada.
The briefings are limited to a handful of political party representatives who hold a valid Canadian government security clearance. The briefings occur in a secure facility and no documents can be removed from the briefing room.
CSE has issued two reports warning that it is “very likely” that Canadian voters will encounter foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the 2019 general election.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, CSE said that remains its position.
“We can say that the Government of Canada’s assessment remains unchanged and we have seen no specific cyber threats targeting the 2019 federal election,” the agency said. “However, it is our job to be ready and we will continue to work with our partners to help ensure the security and integrity of Canada’s forthcoming election.”
Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green Party officials confirmed to The Globe that briefings have already taken place, but declined to provide further details.
“The highest levels of security are implemented for all data, communications, and records and we continually update our processes and review international best practices to further enhance the Liberal Party’s strong information security measures,” Liberal Party spokesperson Parker Lund said in an e-mail. “This has also included meetings and briefings for political parties from the Communications Security Establishment and their government partners.”
Conservative spokesperson Cory Hann also confirmed that briefings have occurred under the process announced earlier this year.
“Due to the classified nature of the briefings, we cannot confirm anything we’ve heard within those,” he said.
In a report to Parliament tabled late last month, CSIS provided additional detail on the types of threats that security agencies are watching for in connection to the election.
“Foreign threat actors, most notably hostile states and state-sponsored actors, are targeting Canada’s democratic institutions and processes,” CSIS warned. “While Canada’s electoral system is strong, threat actors have sought to target its politicians, political parties, elections, and its media outlets in order to manipulate the Canadian public and interfere with Canada’s democracy.”
The report did not say that any specific threats have been confirmed in relation to the 2019 campaign.
New federal legislation updating Canada’s election laws is now in effect and several of the new provisions are aimed at curbing foreign interference.
Specifically, the measures are aimed at preventing foreign actors from funding ad campaigns during the federal election as a way of influencing voters.
Now all Canadian-based third parties – such as individuals or interest groups that wish to run political ads – can only spend up to about $1-million during a pre-election period that started June 30 and no more than $511,700 during the official election campaign.
Canadian third parties are not allowed to use funds from a foreign entity to pay for partisan activities.
Further, foreign third parties are banned from spending any money on partisan activities – such as advertising or surveys – during both the pre-election and election period.
The government’s broader plan to address foreign interference also includes the creation of a five-member panel called the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol made up of a senior federal public servants.
The panel will be responsible for deciding whether a threshold has been met that would warrant alerting the public to a threat to the integrity of the 2019 election. The protocol does not allow the Prime Minister to veto a panel’s decision to notify Canadians.