Cyber interference

(Originally published in two parts on the blog of the Centre for International Policy Studies, here and here.)

“We judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference related to the 2019 federal election.” So says the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s equivalent to America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, in a report issued on 8 April 2019.  In response, the Canadian government has been threatening to regulate social media. As the Chronicle Herald reports:

The world’s major social media companies are not doing enough to help Canada combat potential foreign meddling in this October’s elections and the government might have to regulate them, the cabinet minister in charge of ensuring a fair vote said on Monday.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould spoke shortly after Canada’s electronic signals spy agency said it was very likely that foreign actors will try to meddle in the election.

Gould expects Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to help safeguard the vote by promoting transparency, authenticity, and integrity on their platforms, and said she has been disappointed by the slowness of talks with the companies.

So let’s take a look at this CSE report.

The first thing to note about it is that it’s very short — 24 pages (23 without the very insubstantial footnotes). But if you take out the executive summary and the various explanations of how the report is structured, there are only 16 pages, of which about 80% consists of pictures. The actual text takes only up 3–4 pages, of which only one page discusses the specific Canadian context.

In short, there isn’t much detail in this report. There’s no substance, just some assertions without much by way of supporting evidence or even elucidation of what the assertions mean in practice. It’s very hard to say whether the report’s claims are credible based on what’s in the report, because there isn’t much there.

What are these claims?

First, as Canada is a G7 and NATO member, its political decisions affect the international community more generally. Other states may therefore wish to influence it. Consequently, says CSE, “Foreign adversaries may use cyber tools to target the democratic process to change Canadian election outcomes, policy makers’ choices, governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners, and Canada’s reputation around the world.” It’s true that they “may” do so, but it’s a leap from may do to will do, especially if what you have in mind is the more malicious forms of influence being discussed. The “will do” claim is decidedly unproven.

In broad terms, states are always trying to influence other states. That’s entirely normal. And it’s obvious that cyber tools will be among those used — for instance, ministries and embassies throughout the world, including those of Canada, regularly use Facebook and Twitter to spread their message. “Digital diplomacy,” therefore, is nothing odd, and if that is all CSE has in mind, there’s no reason to get at all worried by it. States are always trying to influence things such as “policy makers’ choices” and “governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners.”

More probably, though, CSE has in mind efforts to do these things by more surreptitious means, specifically attempts to change election results. The report mentions that “Cyber threat actors manipulate online information, often on social media using cyber tools, in order to influence voters’ opinions and behaviours.” As with so much of this report, this statement is annoyingly lacking in specifics, but let’s take it as fact that people “manipulate online information,” including during election campaigns. The issue then arises of how much of that is done by foreign actors, and how much by domestic ones.

Unfortunately, CSE ignores this question entirely. If what you’re worried about is that voters are being fed “fake news” and “disinformation,” look no further than your own country’s politicians and their enablers in the media. Brexit, for instance, didn’t happen because of “foreign meddling,” but because of the disinformation spread by pro-Brexit politicians and journalists. None of this is to say that what CSE describes doesn’t and can’t happen, but we need to have a sense of proportion. CSE doesn’t provide any of that.

CSE also notes that political parties and other organizations face hacking threats. This is, of course, true. But cyber security is something that people ought to be paying attention to in any case, regardless of foreigners who might engage in election meddling.

As far as the specific threat to Canada is concerned, CSE says the following:

“Since the 2015 federal election, Canadian political leaders and the Canadian public have been targeted by foreign cyber interference activities. For example:

  • More than one foreign adversary has manipulated social media using cyber tools to spread false or misleading information relating to Canada on Twitter, likely to polarize Canadians or undermine Canada’s foreign policy goals;

  • Foreign state-sponsored media have disparaged Canadian cabinet ministers; and

  • A foreign adversary has manipulated information on social media to amplify and promote viewpoints highly critical of Government of Canada legislation imposing sanctions and banning travel of foreign officials accused of human rights violations.”

No details are provided to substantiate these claims, so we can’t properly evaluate them. Perhaps they are all true, but how significant are they? How much “misleading information” comes from “foreign adversaries”? How influential is it in reality? As for the second and third assertions, they are somewhat laughable. Disparaging cabinet ministers and manipulating information about legislation are hardly the sole prerogatives of foreign governments. They are pretty much the day to day norm of Canadian politics.

Clearly CSE has in mind the story of Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather’s Nazi connections, and the Russian government’s objections to the Magnitsky Act. However, the first story is true, not disinformation, and in any case wasn’t originated by the Russian government but by Australian journalist John Helmer. And of course foreign governments fight back against legislation targeting them with sanctions. Again, that’s just normal. It’s hard to see what the issue is here. But that’s the whole of the evidence that CSE produces to justify the claim that Canada is likely to experience “foreign interference” in its forthcoming election.

In short, it doesn’t add up to much. Of course it is possible that during our forthcoming election campaign people outside Canada will spread messages through social media, some of which will be false, and that various hackers will target Canadian political organizations. It’s right that people should be aware of these possibilities. But there is little to no evidence that they amount to a serious threat to our democratic process.

CSE draws our attention to all sorts of malign activities that foreign actors could do, but all of them could equally be done (and indeed have been done) by domestic actors on a much larger scale. Canadians may remember the “robocall” scandal, for instance, in which the Conservative Party engaged in voter suppression by sending people automated calls telling them that the location of their polling station had changed. The primary sources of electoral manipulation, political divisions, and so on are domestic.

It’s obvious that the primary “foreign adversary” CSE has in mind is Russia. But Russia has nothing to gain from “meddling” in Canadian elections. All the main Canadian political parties are resolutely hostile to the Russian Federation. The Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act passed through the House of Commons unanimously. From a Russian point of view, there’s no difference between Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP, and so no reason to favour one over the other.

Speaking of possible interference in the 2019 Canadian federal election, the CSE report concludes that “it is improbable that this foreign cyber interference will be of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election.” This is the only reference CSE makes to the scale of the threat, which does not support the idea that this is a major problem.

Unfortunately, this conclusion is lost in the media headlines stating that “foreign interference is likely in Canada’s election.” At the same time, the threat is used to justify calls to regulate social media, and in effect introduce some form of censorship. If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship, one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.

It is all too likely that the relatively minor threat of “foreign meddling” will be used not to hinder the spread of “fake news” but to suppress unwelcome information and viewpoints that diverge from the mainstream. The drive to protect Canadian democracy may, therefore, end up having the opposite effect entirely.

11 thoughts on “Cyber interference”

  1. So, Canada has foreign adversaries now? Why, this is worrying, indeed.

    Not too long ago I had the impression that most of everyone loved Canada and Canadians. They used to have reputation of a nice country, full of nice people. Oh well, things change, I suppose…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “…it is improbable that this foreign cyber interference will be of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election…”

    Great news, since the level of Russian “interference” in the 2016 U.S. election was so laughably small as to be completely negligible. Still, I imagine your 6-year-old PM (judged by his obvious level of emotional intelligence) will scream “Putin!” if he loses.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Unfortunately, this conclusion is lost in the media headlines stating that “foreign interference is likely in Canada’s election.” At the same time, the threat is used to justify calls to regulate social media, and in effect introduce some form of censorship. If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship, one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.

    The drive to protect Canadian democracy may, therefore, end up having the opposite effect entirely.”


    This reminds me of the timeless classic:

    This one wasn’t the last war or a war to end war. They called it the War for the American Dream. General Carpenter struck that note and sounded it constantly. There are fighting generals (vital to an army), political generals (vital to an administration), and public relations generals (vital to a war). General Carpenter was a master of public relations. Forthright and FourSquare, he had ideals as high and as understandable as the mottoes on money. In the mind of America he was the army, the administration, the nation’s shield and sword and stout right arm. His ideal was the American Dream.

    “We are not fighting for money, for power, or for world domination,” General Carpenter announced at the Press Association dinner.
    “We are fighting solely for the American Dream,” he said to the 137th Congress.
    “Our aim is not aggression or the reduction of nations to slavery,” he said at the West Point Annual Officer’s Dinner.
    “We are fighting for the meaning of civilization,” he told the San Francisco Pioneers’ Club.
    “We are struggling for the ideal of civilization; for culture, for poetry, for the Only Things Worth Preserving,” he said at the Chicago Wheat Pit Festival.
    “This is a war for survival,” he said. “We are not fighting for ourselves, but for our dreams; for the Better Things in Life which must not disappear from the face of the earth.”

    America fought. General Carpenter asked for one hundred million men. The army was given one hundred million men. General Carpenter asked for ten thousand H-Bombs. Ten thousand H-Bombs were delivered and dropped. The enemy also dropped ten thousand HBombs and destroyed most of America’s cities.

    “We must dig in against the hordes of barbarism,” General Carpenter said. “Give me a thousand engineers.”
    One thousand engineers were forthcoming, and a hundred cities were dug and hollowed out beneath the rubble.
    “Give me five hundred sanitation experts, three hundred traffic managers, two hundred airconditioning experts, one hundred city managers, one thousand communication chiefs, seven hundred personnel experts…“
    The list of General Carpenter’s demand for technical experts was endless. America did not know how to supply them.
    “We must become a nation of experts,” General Carpenter informed the National Association of American Universities. “Every man and woman must be a specific tool for a specific job, hardened and sharpened by your training and education to win the fight for the American Dream.”

    “Our Dream,” General Carpenter said at the Wall Street Bond Drive Breakfast, “is at one with the gentle Greeks of Athens, with the noble Romans of… er… Rome. It is a dream of the Better Things in Life. Of music and art and poetry and culture. Money is only a weapon to be used in the fight for this dream. Ambition is only a ladder to climb to this dream. Ability is only a tool to shape this dream.”

    Wall Street applauded. General Carpenter asked for one hundred and fifty billion dollars, fifteen hundred ambitious dollar-a-year men, three thousand able experts in mineralogy, petrology, mass production, chemical warfare and air-traffic time study. They were delivered. The country was in high gear. General Carpenter had only to press a button and an expert would be delivered.


    …All America was a tool chest of hardened and sharpened specialists. But there was trouble locating a first-class Historian until the Federal Penitentiary operated with the army and released Dr. Bradley Scrim from his twenty years at hard labor. Dr. Scrim was acid and jagged. He had held the chair of Philosophic History at a Western university until he spoke his mind about the war for the American Dream. That got him the twenty years hard…

    “But I’m not an expert,” he snapped. “In this benighted nation of experts, I’m the last singing grasshopper in the ant heap.”
    Carpenter snapped up the intercom. “Get me an Entomologist,” he said.
    “Don’t bother,” Scrim said. “I’ll translate. You’re a nest of ants… all working and toiling and specializing. For what?”
    “TO preserve the American Dream,” Carpenter answered hotly. “We’re fighting for poetry and culture and education and the Finer Things in Life.”
    “You’re fighting to preserve me,” Scrim said. “That’s what I’ve devoted my life to. And what do you do with me? Put me in jail.”
    “You were convicted of enemy sympathizing and fellow-traveling,” Carpenter said.
    “I was convicted of believing in the American Dream,” Scrim said. “Which is another way of saying I had a mind of my own.”
    – Alfred Bester, “Disappearing Act” (1953)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Brexit, for instance, didn’t happen because of “foreign meddling,” but because of the disinformation spread by pro-Brexit politicians and journalists.”

    Good Lord, really? I thought it was an expression of hostility to a loss of national sovereignty inherent in the undemocratic structures of the neoliberal project that is the EU. I stand corrected by your powerful analysis.


    1. Indeed the seeds of Brexit go back 40 years, to the time the UK joined what was called the common market, there was always a section of the population against joining under Edward Heath.
      There were many key sectors in the midlands and the north which feel they have been impacted negatively by the EU.

      Agriculture/ fishing /coal

      Europe has always featured in election campaigns Tony Blair even promised a referendum but lied – no surprise.

      Issues such as the Maastricht treaty / Lisbon treaty were also fiercely debated

      The metropolitan classes just chose to ignore what was obvious to anyone outside London. In the rest of England and Wales (Scotland and Ireland have pro EU )


  5. I imagine we are not the only one of Washington’s vassal states that are being pressured into making a display of “serious foreign [read Russian, Chinese, Iranian] interference” in federal elections. After all, two years of Mueller produced no substantial evidence of anything that could be called serious (and as National Review notes, “collusion with Russia” is not one of the American charges against Assange—gee, can’t imagine why not), so maybe if the Five Eyes can be called upon to make claims of foreign interference in their elections, the charge may not look so utterly flimsy.

    On a related topic, I see that Australia caved under pressure to ban Huawei and its G5 tech. The rest of the Five Eyes will no doubt follow.


    1. The issues around Huawei and Chinese interests from a larger geo-political-economical sphere. Russia surfaces too. Not surprise given the “heartland” context.

      Germany was warned by the US via the ambassador if it allows Huawei shares in the to be built G5, there cannot be any shared security information after. That was about a month ago. I am not up date on issue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s