The COVID-19 pandemic has been arguably “the most disruptive event” since 9/11 for Canadian national security agencies, according to one of the country’s top intelligence officials.
Tricia Geddes, a deputy director with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Wednesday the pandemic has both accelerated particular national security threats and made the work of Canadian intelligence agencies more complicated.
Geddes said CSIS “saw new threat vectors emerging immediately” at the start of the pandemic: domestic extremists harnessing COVID-19 conspiracy theories for recruitment, an increase in cyber espionage targeting Canadian research and development, and locked-down Canadians conducting sensitive corporate work from unsecured home computers.
At the same time, the national security community was dealing with pandemic complications to their work — everything from challenges with meeting sensitive sources in locked-down countries to employees working from home without access to classified material.
Geddes suggested that combination has provoked the Canadian intelligence community to think collectively on how to adapt to the new environment.
“This has been the most disruptive event probably since 9/11, arguably, for us to have to deal with. And I think it’s time for a proper reflection,” Geddes told a panel hosted by the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies.
“It makes sense that we look collectively at how do we build the right systems. There’s an opportunity here for us to look at this in a collective way … in some of the bigger investments that we would need to make.”
That the pandemic has introduced new threats and accelerated existing ones is not a surprise. Canada and allied intelligence agencies have called out Russia for targeting COVID-19 research, warned about the risks of more and more workers dealing with sensitive information while working remotely, and warned about hostile states increasingly turning to economic espionage.
But Geddes said Wednesday that CSIS expects these threats to persist even as Canada slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some hostile state actors were attempting to leverage all elements of state power, including through the use of aggressive and offensive intelligence operations targeting Canadian life sciences research,” Geddes said.
“While not new, this trend accelerated during the pandemic, and we believe it will continue to be a significant challenge as states emerge from an event that significantly challenges national economies.”
Geddes’ statement is in keeping with Canadian intelligence’s increasing focus on economic espionage and theft of intellectual property, including research and development conducted at Canadian universities.
But documents obtained by Global News suggest that more traditional forums of national security threats — including domestic extremism — have adapted to the new pandemic reality as well.
A June 2020 report from the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, a multi-agency organization tasked with assessing terrorist threats to Canada, suggested “ideologically motivated violent extremists” have “exploited the COVID-19 pandemic through online propaganda to promote their ideologies.”
A follow-up memo from November 2020, released under access to information law, reported “the increased popularity of pandemic conspiracy theories in Canada, especially in Quebec, are a growing concern that online threats and disinformation could incite extremist violence against politicians and public health officials.”
Anti-lockdown protesters recently coordinated protests outside Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s house and constituency office. Mobs of anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers shadowed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the recent election. And over the weekend, COVID-19 protesters hung a noose outside Alberta MLA Tracy Allard’s home, with the words “Hang em all” written across the gallows.
Geddes said that CSIS is “aware” that hostile state actors are amplifying COVID disinformation to “exacerbate social and political tensions created by the pandemic.”
“Those holding these extremist views often attempt to create an online culture of fear, hatred and mistrust by exploiting real or imagined concerns when addressing an online audience,” Geddes said.
“Major global issues such as the pandemic can, and we did see them, augment extremist efforts to move their message from the fringes of society to the mainstream.”
— with files from Stewart Bell.