As America deals with Russian interference, Canada allocates millions to protect electoral system

Vancouver city council debates on if permanent residents can vote in future municipal elections. File / Global News

As questions continue to swirl around the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 American presidential election, the federal government is allocating $7.1 million over five years to help protect Canada’s electoral system from threats.

In addition to that money – which will go the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections – Elections Canada will also reallocate $14 million over the next two years to hire more staff to protect the electoral system.

According to finance officials, $3 million normally used to hire contract staff at Elections Canada will instead be used in 2018-2019 to hire staff who will work full-time to prevent attempts to interfere in the upcoming 2019 federal election.

READ MORE: Why Canada’s low-tech voting system would be hard to sabotage

Another $11 million will be re-allocated the same way in 2019-2020 to do the same.

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More broadly, however, the government will also spend billions of dollars in the coming years on cyber security to beef up protections for government computer systems and create new national bodies tasked with pulling together best practices on the file.

While some of those plans are more specific than others, many of the allocations for spending on cyber security are relatively vague.

“It’s difficult to say a whole lot about the use of the funds, for a number of obvious reasons,” said Brian DePratto, a senior economist with TD Bank.

“When the funds are going to [the Communications Security Establishment], there’s a little bit of a black box there, but you know, I think it’s clear here given the size of the funds the government is providing that this is seen as a priority for this government.”

Half a billion dollars over five years will go to funding a new National Cyber Security Strategy that will focus on three things: ensuring secure and resilient Canadian systems, building an innovative and adaptive cyber ecosystem, and supporting better cyber-security collaboration.

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‘One-stop shop’

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which is Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency and protects federal computer systems, will get another $155.2 million over five years to create a new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.

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That new centre will consolidate federal cyber expertise under one roof and create a sort of ‘one-stop shop’ for citizens and businesses looking for expert advice and support on cyber security.

Currently, multiple Canadian agencies and bodies have different levels of cyber security responsibilities, including the RCMP, CSE, CSIS and CBSA.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2018 federal budget

The government will have to pass legislation to let those various functions consolidate into the new centre, but it is not yet clear exactly which functions will be included or how their separation from their parent agency will work.

The RCMP will still be the body tasked with investigating cybercrime and the government announced an extra $116 million over five years to set up a new National Cybercrime Coordination Unit within the RCMP.

That unit will act as a “coordination hub” for cybercrime investigations in Canada and create a mechanism for the public to report cybercrimes to the RCMP.

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Data protection

Another $2.2 billion will go to Shared Services Canada and the CSE over six years to improve the government’s IT infrastructure, while $110 million over six years will go to helping other government departments that use Shared Services Canada migrate their systems from old data centres to either new modern centres or to cloud storage solutions.

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Most of that will come from re-allocating existing funds within those departments rather than in the form of new funding.

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As well, the Canada Revenue Agency will get $30 million over five years to better protect taxpayer data and $1.24 million will go to Public Safety Canada and CSIS to help cover ongoing costs of performing national security reviews of foreign bids to take over Canadian companies.

Public Safety Canada will also get another $775 million over five years “to help our public safety institutions continue keeping us safe,” but the budget does not specify how that will be used.

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Getting around encryption?

A further $225 million over four years for the CSE is also earmarked to upgrade the agency’s capabilities to conduct surveillance on targets abroad – but only if the government gets re-elected.

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That money, which would not start until 2020-2021, would go to help the agency “keep pace with rapid technological change that can challenge its ability to effectively collect foreign signals intelligence.”

READ MORE: Hactivist groups ‘very likely’ to target 2019 federal election: CSE

It is not clear if that is in reference to helping come up with ways to crack encrypted communications applications, which is a challenge law enforcement agencies have repeatedly sought to find ways around in recent years.

Encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp work by scrambling communications between the sender and the recipient so that only those individuals can read what is in it.

Law enforcement around the world have called for governments to consider requiring software developers to build what is known as ‘backdoor access’ to encrypted applications so that police and software engineers can get hold of the communications of individuals suspected of crimes.

However, a recent threat by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S. to take Apple Inc. to court in order to force it to decrypt the messages of the alleged shooter in an attack in San Bernandino, Calif., in 2016 ended when federal officials backed down and found a private firm to crack the encryption for it.

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