Russia is one of the hostile foreign states that has targeted Canada in recent “cyber influence” campaigns, according to secret intelligence records obtained exclusively by Global News.
The records from Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — labelled “Secret: Canadian Eyes Only” — say that due to their policies in eastern Europe, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan are among the Canadian targets of “cyber influence activity to cause reputational damage.”
Attacks against Freeland and Sajjan
“A small number of nation states” are involved in cyber campaigns against Western democracy, but the national security assessment warns the threat and range of actors involved are growing.
And the tactics used by Canada’s adversaries include “human intelligence operations,” online and cyber influence campaigns and the use of “state-sponsored or influenced media.”
In the cases of Freeland and Sajjan, the documents say it was their “foreign policy and security goals” that made them targets.
The attacks on Freeland, who is now deputy prime minister, were partly meant to combat her support of laws targeting corrupt Russian oligarchs and leaders, the CSE records say, and included allegations that her Ukrainian grandfather had edited a newspaper with ties to Nazis.
The laws referred to are Canada’s version of the Magnitsky Act, named after a Russian lawyer who died as a result of his corruption investigations.
The cyber-campaign directed by Russia involved distortions of facts and was timed, targeted and, according to the CSE, “pushed the narrative to suggest that Freeland’s family immigrated to Canada as part of a wave of Nazi-collaborators.”
The first attack was a February 2017 report in the “online Consortium News” followed “in quick succession” by pro-Russian English language and Russian-language online media, the CSE report says.
And in April 2018, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expelled several Russian diplomats, “the ‘Grandfather Nazi’ narrative quickly reappeared.”
“In early spring 2017 and spring 2018, sources linked to Russia popularized MFA Freeland’s family history, very likely intended to cause personal reputational damage in order to discredit the Government of Canada’s ongoing diplomatic and military support of Ukraine, to delegitimize Canada’s decision to enact the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Offices Act, and the expulsion of several Russian diplomats.”
The CSE records obtained by Global News appear to document for the first time direct allegations from Canada’s government that Russia directed these cyber campaigns.
When asked in 2017 by Ottawa reporters to comment on the Russian reports, Freeland said: “I don’t think it’s a secret [that] American officials have publicly said, and even [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has publicly said, that there were efforts on the Russian side to destabilize Western democracies, and I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts were used against Canada.”
Freeland did not respond to requests for comment for this story. However, the Globe and Mail has reported that Freeland was aware her “maternal Ukrainian grandfather was the chief editor of a Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland,” and that she had contributed to scholarly research about the relative.
Meanwhile, the “Canadian-led NATO deployment in Latvia” made Sajjan a target of racist reports, the CSE documents say.
“Subtle and not-so-subtle media stories pertaining to MND Sajjan’s appearance and turban have consistently appeared in Baltic region Russian-language media outlets, and later amplified with Russia-friendly narrative in social media and comments, almost certainly intended to discredit NATO presence.”
One of the reports, CSE says, described Sajjan as “a large swarthy man in a big black turban.”
The CSE records also point to Russian attacks involving a “false report about Canadian troops.”
“In 2016, false information appeared on social media about a ‘failed Canadian raid’ on Russian separatist positions in Ukriane, alleging that 11 Canadian military personnel had been killed.”
The false report was shared over 3,000 times on Facebook, the CSE said, and a similar report in May 2018 was published on pro-Russian websites, falsely claiming three Canadian soldiers died “after their vehicle hit a landmine in Ukraine.”
Attacks and promotions from ‘key threat actors’
According to a secret CSE intelligence document, titled Threats and Risks to Democracy, the small number of nation-states that are attacking Canada have different objectives in their cyber influence campaigns, “depending on their domestic situations and threat perceptions.”
The report includes a threat assessment of a number of countries targeting Canada, but country names are redacted. Nation case studies disclosed in the CSE records obtained by Global News only reflect examples of Russian interference.
But the records suggest nations targeting Canada include authoritarian governments seeking to “influence or damage our democratic process and system of government.”
“(Redacted are) motivated by the pursuit of strategic interests and spheres of influence, regime protection and domestic legitimacy (including by discrediting foreign democratic institutions); asymmetric power projection and deterrence; and status and reputational gains.”
Global News requested interviews with Sajjan and Freeland for comment on the CSE records and to ask them about nations other than Russia that are considered top cyber threats by Canada’s Western intelligence allies.
In November, for example, the defection of a self-identified Chinese spy in Australia revealed allegations of China’s alleged cyberattacks on various democracies.
The defector, Wang Liqiang, claimed he directed a “cyber army” in attacks in Hong Kong and Taiwan, The Age reported. New Zealand’s leaders have also been targeted in Chinese cyber campaigns, according to New Zealand professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose reporting on China’s influence campaigns has been cited by Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS.
In an interview with Global News, the former head of CSIS, Ward Elcock, said: “clearly the Chinese have considerable cyber-talent, and there is no question they have the capabilities, because their intelligence agencies are huge.”
Elcock said it is plausible that Chinese intelligence was involved this year in the case of a Tibetan-Canadian leader, who claimed she was attacked by online trolls following her election as University of Toronto student union president.
“It’s not a surprise that the Chinese, the Russians, and others have moved their intelligence agencies into cyber, to exploit the capablities,” Elcock said.
“The most interesting thing about cyber, is the most avid users of the internet are the intelligence services.”
A spokesperson for Sajjan emailed a statement, that says “the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) was asked to provide an updated cyber threat report to Canada’s Democratic Process in advance of the 2019 General Election … (and a panel involving Canadian intelligence agencies) did not observe any activities that affected Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.”
Levers for future influence
Cyber campaigns don’t only target Canadian politicians seen as threats to foreign powers. The CSE documents assert “foreign states” are also likely interfering in Canada’s democracy by “promoting politicians and parties they perceive as sympathetic to their interests … to try to develop levers for future influence.”
“Cyber-enabled influence activities have the potential to affect the popularity of candidates, dissuade some from running for office, embarrass or discredit political figures, and exacerbate political and social divides,” the CSE records say.
“In the longer-term, influence activities, both cyber and human, are likely to challenge the transparency and independence of the decision-making process.”
The CSE records say that foreign cyber campaigns are evolving rapidly, and the scope of targets and strategic objectives is expanding.
In comparison to a 2017 threat assessment, in 2019, “cyber capabilities have become another means for nation-states to further their economic interests,” the CSE records say. And while politicians and political parties remain popular targets, increasingly Canadian voters and media are targets.
All of this means that “measuring the cumulative impact” posed by a growing number of “threat actors” is difficult, the CSE records say. But analysts have laid out a range of expected outcomes to Canada’s system of government on a timeline.
The immediate goal of cyber influence campaigns is to damage or boost the popularity of certain candidates, which could promote desired election outcomes, the records say. The mid-term goal of these attacks is to polarize political discourse in democracies and weaken confidence in leaders.
And the long-term goal is to create divisions in international alliances, promote foreign economic, military and ideological interests, and “push policy in directions inimical to Canadian interests.”
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