Monday, June 19, 2017

CSE releases report on electoral threats

On June 16th, CSE released Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process, a public report assessing the various ways cyber activities might threaten Canada's electoral system.

CSE has made basic cybersecurity advice publicly available on its website for many years, but this report—which was requested by the Prime Minister in the mandate letter he issued to Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould in February 2017—was the first of its kind by CSE.

The 38-page report discusses three ways in which cyber activities might be used to affect the electoral process: impeding or corrupting the voting process itself; stealing and exploiting information about politicians and political parties; and covertly influencing the public's political views by manipulating traditional and social media.

The document restricts itself to a general overview of the ways in which these threats might manifest themselves in Canada's federal, provincial, and municipal politics, and concludes (among other points) that:
  • Cyber threat activity against the democratic process is increasing around the world, and Canada is not immune. In 2015, during the federal election, Canada’s democratic process was targeted by low-sophistication cyber threat activity. It is highly probable that the perpetrators were hacktivists and cybercriminals, and the details of the most impactful incidents were reported on by several Canadian media organizations.
  • A small number of nation-states have undertaken the majority of the cyber activity against democratic processes worldwide, and we judge that, almost certainly, they are the most capable adversaries.
  • However, to date, we have not observed nation-states using cyber capabilities with the purpose of influencing the democratic process in Canada during an election. We assess that whether this remains the case in 2019 will depend on how Canada’s nation-state adversaries perceive Canada’s foreign and domestic policies, and on the spectrum of policies espoused by Canadian federal candidates in 2019.
  • We expect that multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election. We anticipate that much of this activity will be low-sophistication, though we expect that some influence activities will be well-planned and target more than one aspect of the democratic process.
  • Regarding Canada’s democratic process at the federal level, we assess that, almost certainly, political parties and politicians, and the media are more vulnerable to cyber threats and related influence operations than the election activities themselves. This is because federal elections are largely paper-based and Elections Canada has a number of legal, procedural, and information technology measures in place.
  • We assess that the threat to Canada’s democratic process at the sub-national level (i.e. provincial/territorial and municipal) is very likely to remain at its current low level. However, some of Canada’s sub-national political parties and politicians, electoral activities, and media are likely to come under increasing threat from nation-states and hacktivists.
All of this is pretty common sense for anyone who's been paying attention to the world for the past couple of years—although it's certainly noteworthy that, to date, CSE has not observed "nation-states" using cyber capabilities to try to influence Canadian elections.

The document's ultimate value is likely to depend on whether it succeeds in kick-starting action on the part of Canadian political parties and others to actually reduce Canada's future vulnerability to such threats.

This document explicitly is not an action plan to accomplish that goal.

However, the Minister's mandate letter did direct her also to "ask CSE to offer advice to Canada’s political parties and Elections Canada on best practices when it comes to cyber security," and CSE does plan to do that. (In fact, Elections Canada is already a recipient of CSE's cyber defence advice and services.) The agency will discuss the findings of the report with all federal political parties that wish to participate at a meeting to be held next Tuesday, June the 20th.

According to a background briefing that CSE kindly invited me to take part in (along with a number of other researchers), the agency will explore with the parties whether it would be useful to provide further, more detailed advice or training to some or all of them. One possibility would be to provide training to IT staffers at CSE's Information Technology Security Learning Centre. Perhaps more likely, however, would simply be provision of advice on the kinds of services parties should contract for in the private sector.

CSE will not be providing actual cyber defence services to the political parties, however.

The government considers Canada's democratic institutions to be "of importance to the Government of Canada", which gives CSE a legal mandate to provide IT security advice and guidance to those parties under s.273.64(1)(b) of the National Defence Act (i.e., CSE's Mandate B). But provision of actual protective services is restricted to the IT systems and networks of the government of Canada itself.

Nonetheless, a CSE official did confirm that warnings would be provided if, for example, the SIGINT side of the agency detected a foreign actor stealing data from a political party's computer system. Notification would come through the Public Safety Department's Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre (CCIRC), which is responsible for assistance to critical infrastructure operators outside the federal government. Such notifications are routinely provided to CCIRC partners in such cases, according to the official.

[Update 20 June 2017: Under Bill C-59, which was announced and given first reading today, the government proposes to give CSE the power to also provide cybersecurity services to protect non-federal information infrastructures designated "of importance" to the government of Canada. Thus, the agency might in the future be able to provide such a service to political parties, if they request it.]

I also asked why CSE was the agency given the job of making the threat assessment in the first place. As the report itself acknowledges, the cyber threat to electoral systems is just one aspect, albeit a very important one, of a broader set of activities that could be used to undermine or improperly influence an election, including traditional espionage, propaganda, disinformation, covert funding, and blackmail or other coercion. Furthermore, as the report also acknowledges, the perpetrators of such actions can be purely domestic Canadian actors—the activities of which CSE should have very little insight into—as well as foreign actors.

Thus, it seems to me that, in both respects, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would have been a more appropriate agency to make such an assessment, although it would certainly have needed to draw on CSE's cyber expertise when considering those aspects of the issue.

The response, which I didn't find entirely satisfying, was simply that CSE is the agency with the greatest expertise on cyber threat questions. Well, yes, indisputably, but that doesn't answer the points outlined in the paragraph above.

Ultimately, of course, the reason CSE produced the report is that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Democratic Institutions asked it to.

Unsurprisingly, Australia is also concerned about the possibility of interference in its electoral system, and its political parties are also receiving advice from that country's SIGINT/IT Security agency. However, as indicated in this report (Ronald Mizen, "Political parties vulnerable to state sponsored cyber attacks," Financial Review, 16 June 2017), the Australians may also consider providing funding to political parties to help them secure their systems.

Might Canada also consider putting money on the table? An interesting thought.

News coverage of the CSE report:

Lee Berthiaume, "Canada's spy agency expects cyberattacks during 2019 federal election," Canadian Press, 16 June 2017

Alex Boutilier, "Canada’s political parties, media vulnerable to foreign hacks, spy agency says," Toronto Star, 16 June 2017

Daniel Leblanc, "Spy agency to school political parties on cyberthreats," Globe and Mail, 16 June 2017

Justin Ling, "“Low sophistication” actors took aim at the last Canadian election," Vice News, 16 June 2017

Alex Boutilier, "Despite risk of cyber attacks, political parties still handle Canadians’ data with no rules in place," Toronto Star, 19 June 2017


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