Canada should worry about Russian interference in elections: former CSIS head

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Note: Story updated Monday, March 13, 2017 with comment from Elections Canada.

Canada would be “foolish” to ignore the possibility that Russia might seek to interfere in its electoral system, says Richard Fadden, former head of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and former national security adviser to Stephen Harper.

“I think it’s something we have to worry about,” he said in an interview with Vassy Kapelos on The West Block.

And although he believes that the United States will always be Russia’s top target, he notes “all democracies should give some thought to protecting themselves over this sort of thing,” echoing comments made earlier in the week by foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland.

READ MORE: Chrystia Freeland warns Canada needs to be wary of Russian efforts to destabilize political system

In the United States, Russian cyber-attacks were mostly directed at political parties and their databases, he said. “We would have that same issue here but that’s the responsibility of the political parties. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the government to protect political parties. So the various parties are going to have to take reasonable steps to protect themselves. Not impossible to do, it just requires a bit of money and some effort.”

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But because Canada doesn’t have electronic voting, it would be tough to alter the results. “But I think the transmission of results to the Chief Electoral Officer is an area where somebody could try and muck about with the numbers.”

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READ MORE: Russia will continue to meddle in US politics: hacking report

According to Elections Canada though, the only thing transmitted electronically are preliminary results on Election Night. These are not the official results, said John Enright, spokesperson for Elections Canada, and are just a service provided because people like to see real-time results – they don’t determine the seats.

Canada’s voting process is paper-based, he said, and redundancies are built into the system. “The ballots are marked by hand, they are counted by hand, they are verified by hand locally. Everything comes back here. We get paper copies of everything, of the preliminary counts, then they’re compiled and published.”

“The double redundancy and the hands-on nature of the process itself would preclude any concerns that we would have in terms of results.”

Countries have always tried to interfere in other countries’ elections, said Fadden. “What’s new in this case is that they’re using cyber methodology. The old approach was to use money. You’d pay the political campaign or something.”

Cyber campaigns could be more effective than bribery, he thinks, because they could affect a large number of people at once rather than just the person taking money.

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Russia is happy to sow a little confusion in intelligence agencies and encourage different countries to distrust one another, he said.

“They’re happy when things are destabilized. They don’t want World War III, don’t get me wrong, but they’re happy if the West in particular is a little less organized and structured than we could be.”

Crossing the border

One thing Fadden isn’t particularly concerned about is the increasing number of refugee claimants crossing the Canada-U.S. border on foot.

“Any country that allows people to walk in without some measure of pre-control sees their risk increase,” he said. “But I think we have to be reasonable about this. These are people who have managed to get into the United States to begin with. Most of them have gone through some form of pre-clearance. So I would argue in the short- to medium-term, the risk increase is minimal.”

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If the number of refugee claimants continued to increase long-term, he’d be more concerned, he said. “What would really worry me is if they were able to walk into this country and we lost all sense of where they were,” he said, but he doesn’t believe that’s happening now.

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