Canada’s electronic spy agency may be under-estimating the threat that China — not Russia — could pose in the October federal election.
Expect everything from fake news spread on social media to attempts to steal voter information to “deep fakes” or “synthetic videos” indistinguishable from real footage to “foreign adversaries” attempting to polarize issues, sway voters and discredit the democratic process during Canada’s coming federal election campaign.
Any or all of those things are “very likely,” Canada’s electronic spy agency said in a report released this week.
Political parties, candidates and their staff have already been targeted, according to the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
Meantime, Australia’s director of its security intelligence service reiterated his assessment this week that the threat of foreign interference in his country’s 2019 election as being “at an unprecedented level.” Already this year, the parliamentary systems and those of the three major political parties have been compromised.
And, that is despite — or perhaps because of — sweeping legislative changes made last year aimed at reducing foreign interference and a ban on foreign donations passed earlier this year.
Half of the established democracies that held elections last year experienced cyber-interference at triple the rate of three years ago. The report also mentions several instances when Canada was targeted in the past.
What’s “improbable,” CSE said, is that Canada will experience interference on the scale of Russian activity in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
No surprise there. Russia doesn’t care as much about Canada as the United States.
What is surprising is that there is no mention of China.
In late December, CSE issued a special bulletin a few weeks after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained in Vancouver pending extradition to the United States on fraud charges.
“It is almost certain that actors likely associated with the People’s Republic of China ministry of state security are responsible for the compromise of several managed service providers beginning as early as 2016,” it said.
MSPs are companies like Bell, Rogers, Telus and IBM Canada — some of the same companies that already use Huawei equipment and have expressed interest in buying its 5G network gear.
Australian academic and ethicist Clive Hamilton questions the focus of the CSE report and says it is “disappointing” that it looks at election interference through a Russian lens.
“Russia is not a big problem for Canada. China is a much greater threat and it uses quite different methods of interference,” said Hamilton, who is currently in Canada doing research for a follow to his book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence on Australia.
“Russia wants social disruption,” he said in an interview. “The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) wants to influence the stable U.S., Canadian and Australian systems. They don’t care who is in government as long as they can influence its decisions.”
Candyce Kelshall agrees. She is a fellow at Buckingham University’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies and an adjunct professor in Simon Fraser University’s Terrorism Risk and Security Studies program.
“China is very much a real and present danger,” she said in an interview. “However, the Chinese efforts are not designed with a clear intent that is malevolent in terms of influencing. … They’re more about controlling, maintaining, manipulating access with hardware, software and communications technology.”
Both suggest that the Chinese government has a long-term strategy to influence and control policies, if not governments, including those in Canada and Australia.
Hamilton calls it “Hongkongization” where slowly, slowly, institutions are eroded and ground is ceded to Chinese Communist Party control.
That’s what has happened since 1997 when control of Hong Kong reverted to China from Britain. And it’s what China is attempting in Australia where the people of Chinese descent account for about five per cent of the population, similar to Canada.
CCP-linked individuals, businesses and organizations in Australia have promoted candidates with some success. But mostly, they have bought or won over political elites, infiltrated political parties and campaigned in the Chinese community against candidates seen as “unfriendly” to the Chinese government (even if those candidates are of Chinese descent).
It has also been happening here for at least a couple of decades. In 2010, Richard Fadden, then head of CSIS, said at least two provincial cabinet ministers as well as other officials and employees in municipal and provincial governments were under foreign control. He singled out China.
Since then, Kelshall said Canada has been “sleep-walking” as CCP influence has grown.
While Hamilton, Fadden and others say it is not too late to mitigate the Chinese government’s influence, Kelshall pessimistically predicts that over the next 25 years the CCP will become Canada’s benevolent dictator — benevolent because there will be no war and its deep economic and financial ties will make it unwilling to disrupt any trade routes.
“The only way forward is strong, strategic involvement,” she said. “We need a much closer involvement because you know the saying, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’”
For Kelshall and for the rest of us, the unanswered question is: “How could Canada have let this happen?”