China and Russia ‘aggressively’ targeting Canadians, CSIS director warns

CSIS director David Vigneault, July 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada’s intelligence chief warned Canadians on Tuesday that they are being “aggressively” targeted by hostile foreign governments seeking political, economic and military advantage.

In a rare public speech, David Vigneault singled out Russia and China, saying that Beijing was engaged in “activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

“You may think to yourself, ‘I’m not a national security person. I’m a scientist, a business person, an academic and so on. I’m not interested in geopolitics,’” the Canadian Security Intelligence Service director said.

“Well, I can say with some confidence that geopolitics is interested in you. And it’s important that you know how you can be at risk and how you can protect your interests.”

The address to the Centre for International Governance Innovation built upon earlier remarks by Vigneault about how adversarial states were targeting Canadians in espionage and foreign-influence operations.

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It also showcased the Canadian government’s new willingness to name names when discussing states behind national security threats — notably the governments of Russia and China.

“Big change,” Prof. Stephanie Carvin, a terrorism and national security expert at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, wrote on Twitter about identifying the two countries.

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Also on Twitter, former CSIS analyst Jessica Davis, CEO of Insight Threat Intelligence, noted the speech had touched on violent extremism but dwelled mostly on foreign interference and espionage.

“This is consistent with the trajectory over the last few years, certainly post 2016; terrorism will always be a core function, but if we’re talking about strategic, existential threats, it’s all about those foreign states.”

Vigneault said China was “pursuing a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts – economic, technological, political, and military – and using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

He cited Operation Fox Hunt, the Chinese Communist Party’s scheme to silence political opposition to its rule by using fear and intimidation against dissidents internationally.

Click to play video: 'CSIS says foreign actors engaging in COVID-19 disinformation'
CSIS says foreign actors engaging in COVID-19 disinformation

While foreign foes had traditionally sought Canadian political, military and diplomatic secrets, they are now focused more on “research held on computer systems in small startups, corporate boardrooms, or university labs across the country,” the CSIS boss said.

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Canadian companies in almost every sector are being targeted, particularly in the biopharma and health sectors, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, ocean technology and aerospace, he said.

“CSIS has observed persistent and sophisticated state-sponsored threat activity for many years now and we continue to see a rise in the frequency and sophistication of this threat activity.”

Hostile states had “accelerated” their operations since the start of the global pandemic, which had created a scenario “ripe for exploitation by threat actors seeking to cause harm or advance their own interests,” he said.

“With many Canadians working from home, threat actors are presented with even more opportunities to conduct malicious online activities,” Vigneault said.

“For instance, we’ve seen the continued use of online platforms by violent extremists to recruit others and to spread their hateful messaging, anti-authority narratives and conspiracy theories about the pandemic to rationalize and justify violence.

“We are also seeing an increase in the exploitation of cyber tools to steal sensitive information, conduct ransomware attacks and cause disruption. In addition, we remain aware of the efforts of state adversaries to spread disinformation about pandemic responses in an attempt to discredit government efforts and diminish confidence in vaccine rollout efforts.”

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