January 30, 2018 4:26 pm
Updated: January 30, 2018 7:09 pm

Should Canadian security agency be able to launch cyber attacks? Contentious new powers debated

National security experts were split today at committee on whether Canada's foreign signals intelligence agency needs new powers to launch offensive cyber operations abroad.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward/File
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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the review being done in regards to the Aecon takeover bid

Contentious new powers proposed by the Liberal government for Canada’s signals intelligence agency were in the crosshairs Tuesday as national security experts appeared before a House of Commons committee studying the bill that would effectively allow the agency to launch cyber attacks abroad.

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C-59, which the government introduced last year, is a massive bill that will overhaul how Canadian national security agencies operate, as well as who is responsible for making sure they do not break the law. Among the proposals in the legislation is a section that allows the Communications Security Establishment, which collects communications abroad but cannot target Canadians, to conduct offensive cyber attacks against enemies who target Canadian interests.

Ontario Provincial Security Adviser Ray Boisvert defended the provision at the public safety committee Tuesday morning in Ottawa following testimony from the watchdog of the Communications Security Establishment that there should be oversight for such activities.

READ MORE: Canadian security agency will soon be able to launch cyber attacks against terrorists

“The best defence always begins with a good offense,” he said. “When more than five dozen countries are rumoured to be developing active cyber capabilities, in my view that means we must develop capabilities to respond and in some cases that includes outside our borders.”

Boisvert, who served as assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service until he left to start a security consulting firm six years ago, said the prevalence and effectiveness of cyber attacks will only continue to increase in the coming years.

His comments came on the heels of an appearance by Jean-Pierre Plouffe, commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment, who told committee members there should be more oversight over how and when the agency uses such new powers.

In particular, Plouffe said the proposed role of intelligence commissioner, which would be created under the legislation, should come with jurisdiction to review cases in which the Communications Security Establishment launches cyber operations abroad.

“This is a very broad mandate for CSE and I think it’s reasonable for commentators, legislators like you are, to raise the point and ask questions,” he said. “In essence, do we need that type of technique?”

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The decision to grant offensive cyber capabilities to the Communications Security Establishment is among the more contentious parts of the bill. Critics say it could open Canadians up to retaliation by hostile actors or regimes who are targeted by the cyber operations launched by the Communications Security Establishment.

The government has argued it provides the right tools for the agency to protect Canadian interests in a changing world. Boisvert echoed those sentiments.

“Rest assured, this will only get worse — especially when facing autocratic regimes around the world that have no inhibitions,” Boisvert said. He pointed to the threat capabilities of Russia, as well as the challenges posed by China, which is becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to expand its control of resources abroad.

READ MORE: Watch China’s efforts to influence as Canada pursues trade, former envoy says

“China is a much more complex issue and I understand the challenges of jurisdictions like ours. Authoritarian capitalism seems to drive a lot of business decisions, but they represent complexities that I’m not sure we as Canadians examine. … I think there’s a values challenge that Canadians will have to consider as well as economic [benefits].”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticized for what some critics say is too much acquiescence to China and a reluctance to publicly criticize the regime there for its litany of human rights abuses and international aggression.

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Under the Liberal government, Canada is now in exploratory talks with China aimed at discussing the possibility of a free trade agreement.

Formal talks have not yet begun but were expected to be announced in early December 2017 when Trudeau visited Beijing.

That visit also saw Chinese officials aggressively block Canadian reporters from trying to photograph Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

ANALYSIS: In China, Trudeau says journalism that informs, challenges is vital. Bravo

Trudeau has also been harshly criticized for allowing the Chinese takeover of Norsat without a separate national security review. That B.C. company manufactures satellites and supplies the American military.

All foreign investment bids are reviewed under the Investment Canada Act to assess whether they constitute a net benefit to Canadians.

As part of that standard review, a variety of government bodies have input into the potential effects of the deal ranging from economic to national security, and agencies such as the RCMP, CBSA and others can provided their perspectives.

However, there is also a separate assessment specifically defined as a “national security review” under the Investment Canada Act which is authorized by the governor in council if concerns about national security are raised during the standard assessment, and that secondary review specifically conducts an extensive review of the national security implications around a proposed deal.

The government has also not said if it will conduct that separate national security review of the bid by the Chinese state-owned CCC International to take over Aecon Group Inc., which is Canada’s largest construction group.

Meanwhile, the United States has blocked China from several corporate takeovers in recent years, citing the national security concerns of China controlling technology used in American infrastructure or holding American consumer information.

Just this month, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. blocked a bid by an Alibaba-affiliate firm to acquire the money transfer firm Moneygram because the move would let a Chinese company possess consumer data.

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