A federal task force with members from the RCMP, CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment will watch for foreign interference in the 2019 federal election, ministers announced on Wednesday.
Under a “critical election incident public protocol,” five senior public servants will decide when an incident is egregious enough to warrant going public in the midst of a campaign.
Officials say they are responding to interference in elections in other countries, notably the United States, where both parties were hacked in 2016. Elections in Germany and France, and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, have also been targeted in recent years.
WATCH: Canada’s a target, Gould warns
“We are a member of the G7, of NATO, of the Five Eyes,” said Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould.
“It would be naive of us to assume that we are not a target for cyberattack.”
While the ministers didn’t single out a specific country, Russia has made direct, recent threats against Canada.
In 2017, Parliament passed the Magnitsky Act, which targets the investments of foreign citizens deemed to be guilty of human rights abuses. While the law didn’t explicitly refer to Russia by name, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa called it a “deplorably confrontational act” which “will be met with resolve and reciprocal countermeasures.”
WATCH: Canada sets up G7 Rapid Response Coordinated Unit to address election threats
At the time, officials at the embassy would not agree to an interview, or explain what kind of “reciprocal countermeasures” were being referred to.
The five public servants who will be charged with determining what should be revealed during a Canadian federal campaign are: the clerk of the Privy Council, the government’s national security adviser, and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety and global affairs.
Online disinformation can take a bewildering variety of sophisticated forms, from “deepfake” videos to faked audio recordings that use parts the target’s real voice, to leaked documents that are mostly genuine but include subtly faked elements.
It can also include false news spread and reinforced by networks of bots and trolls, which had a prominent role in the U.S. 2016 election and Britain’s Brexit referendum.
“It could be one event, or it could be the culmination of a series of events,” Gould said.
“Social media have been used to falsely slander elected officials,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. “Trolls and bots are dispatched to stoke anxiety and hysteria around sensitive issues. Fake news masquerades as legitimate information.”
Officials say the threshold will be high: only disruptive incidents that harm Canada’s ability to hold a free and fair election will be publicly disclosed.
“There has been an explosion of disinformation,” says Marcus Kolga of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based public policy think tank.
“My greatest fear is that it won’t necessarily be state-sponsored actors in the upcoming election that will try to interfere, but proxies here in Canada who will be used to interfere. Far-left and far-right groups will have learned from Russian disinformation techniques, and will deploy them on their own to try and sow chaos and discord ahead of the election.”
But the team will face an awkward balancing act trying to tell which interference is foreign and which is domestic, and trying to draw a line between the normally heated rhetoric and sharp elbows of an election campaign, and an active attempt to subvert the election, all the while being seen as politically impartial.
Plan to address foreign interference ‘not about refereeing’ 2019 election: Gould
“This is not about refereeing the election,” Gould said. “This is about alerting Canadians about an incident that jeopardizes their right to a free and fair election.”
The protocol is intended to avoid the dilemma that faced James Comey, the FBI director during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when he was confronted with evidence of Russian interference apparently aimed at boosting Donald Trump.
With no rules for dealing with such a situation, Comey decided not to reveal the interference during the campaign.
CSE will have a role in helping parties, which keep deep storehouses of data on individual voters, safeguard their information.
“One of the big problems – we saw this in the U.S., we saw it in Europe – is that political party lists are vulnerable to hacking,” Kolga says. “In the U.S. those lists were hacked and used to prevent voters from voting during the presidential election.”
“It’s good to make sure there’s this awareness campaign happening, and that political parties have proper security protocols in place for their own systems going into the election.”
— With files from The Canadian Press