The Canadian government is providing cyber “support” to Ukraine amid what federal officials condemned on Thursday as a “barbaric” and “horrific” invasion by Russia of the sovereign democracy.
The details of that support are unclear, though officials say it includes “intelligence sharing, cyber security, and cyber operations.”
“We have also been providing support from a cyber perspective, and will continue to do so,” said Defence Minister Anita Anand during a press conference in which Canadian leaders unveiled “severe” new sanctions on dozens of Russian officials and state institutions.
“We cannot allow Putin to redraw maps and rewrite history to suit his own purposes.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Anand announced the new sanctions on Thursday, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a massive and violent invasion of Ukraine after weeks of posturing.
At least 40 people are believed dead so far and dozens of others wounded in the invasion, which has seen Russian forces bombard Ukrainian villages and cities with shelling since early Thursday morning.
Anand shared details earlier in the week of additional military support that Canada is going to provide to Ukraine, including an artillery battery set to deploy to nearby Latvia in roughly six weeks, as well as a patrol aircraft and a vow that “all options” remain on the table to support Ukraine.
Canada has also sent $7.8 million worth of lethal equipment, as well as “an electronic warfare troop of CAF personnel” to support the NATO battle group stationed in Latvia.
In addition to the violent and aggressive land war waged by Russia, Putin has also overseen a campaign of cyber warfare targeting key Ukrainian government and military institutions.
It is part of what retired lieutenant-general Mike Day, former commander of Canada’s special forces, described as an effort “to show that the Ukrainian government can no longer function.”
“If it works on a digital background, it is susceptible to cyber interference,” Day said.
He also cautioned against making any assumptions at this point about what Putin’s intentions are.
“It is premature for anyone to suggest they understand what Putin’s objective is — how far he will go. They’re talking out of their ass,” said Day.
“We do not have enough information.”
The Canadian military got an additional mandate to conduct cyber options under the 2017 policy review known as Strong, Secure, Engaged.
That review, a milestone policy document billed as the vision document for a military of the future, included a vow to build a new cyber force that can “act decisively in the face of evolving challenges.”
Many of the details of that cyber force, however, remain unclear. The Department of National Defence would not confirm the number of “cyber operators” currently employed with the military when asked by Global News, citing operational security.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, spokesperson for the Department of National Defence, also said the military cannot comment on whether the Canadian Forces’ cyber officials are engaged in cyber operations.
“Cyber Operations are executed on the direction of the Government of Canada. Like any other CAF capability, cyber operations are used only to achieve military objectives in support of authorized Canadian government operations,” he said in a statement.
“In order to protect the integrity of operational security, DND/CAF does not release details with regards to actual or alleged cyber operations.”
A spokesperson for the Communications Security Establishment, though, confirmed that the signals intelligence agency is engaged in actions including “cyber operations.”
“The Government of Canada’s cyber defence team, including CSE, is constantly reviewing measures to ensure our systems and information networks remain secure. We have tools in place to monitor, detect, and investigate potential threats, and to take active measures to address them,” said spokesperson Evan Koronewski.
“Russia has significant cyber capabilities and a demonstrated history of using them irresponsibly.”
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Koronewski pointed to past cyber attacks and cyber efforts attributed to Russia, including the SolarWinds cyber hack, attempts to steal information around COVID-19 vaccine development, interference in Georgia’s election and the NotPetya malware.
“While we can’t speak about specific operations, we can confirm that CSE has been tracking cyber threat activity associated with the current crisis. CSE has been sharing valuable cyber threat intelligence with key partners in Ukraine,” said Koronewski.
“We also continue to work with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in support of Ukraine, including intelligence sharing, cyber security, and cyber operations.”
Dan Rogers, associate deputy minister of the CSE, said the agency does have the capabilities to conduct operations in concert with allies such as the NATO military alliance, the NORAD continental defence alliance with the U.S., or of a bilateral nature alongside specific allies.
When asked whether the cyber operations involving the CSE include both offensive and defensive activities, Rogers did not rule that out.
“In this case, I can’t speak to specifics,” he said.
“I can say that CSE is ready.”
Day said the question of what to disclose is always a balancing act for officials, when asked whether he thinks the public has a right to know what kinds of cyber activities the military and intelligence officials are conducting.
“I reject the premise that there is value in exposing everything the military does,” he said.
“The challenge always is, how do you balance between operational security in order to maintain effectiveness, and the public’s right to know?”
What are Canada's cyber capabilities?
It isn’t clear whether Canadians who could be on the receiving end of Russian attacks on critical infrastructure will ever get an accurate sense of what kinds of actions their military and national security officials are taking in the cyber warfare or cyber operation space.
Like many military and espionage-related activities, much remains shrouded in secrecy, from the total budgets and amounts spent on specific technological capabilities to even the number of people working on that particular force.
Alexander Rudolph is a PhD candidate at Carleton University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. His research focuses on Canadian cyber defence and the development of the cyber force, and Rudolph noted that the lack of information around the force makes it a challenge to assess the full extent of its capabilities.
He pointed to the deployment of a cyber warfare troop by Canada to Latvia as an example.
“It’s the fact that we don’t know what they’re doing that provides so many questions,” he said.
Both NATO and Canada have for years been working with Ukraine to help build up their cyber capabilities, Rudolph said, adding that support has led to Ukraine being “leagues ahead” of countries with similar militaries and economic output.
That comes as all available indications appear to suggest that the Canadian military and the Communications Security Establishment are working on building and defining a relationship akin to the way that the American military learns from and works with the National Security Agency, he noted.
Going forward, much of the challenge for Canada remains to be making up for lost time in cultivating military cyber capabilities, Rudolph said, pointing to U.S. Cyber Command development that began in the 1990s and early 2000s.
One thing appears clear, though — cyber conflict is not going away.
“It’s here. It’s going to stay, and it’s going to be part of both declared conflict and war as it is in Ukraine, and also everyday life,” said Rudolph. “If we don’t properly invest into how to think about engaging in this space, that is what I would argue is what’s holding back Canada.”