In June 2017, CSE released its assessment on Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process. The report looked at cyber threat activity directed at democratic processes around the world. The key judgements in that assessment remain valid today, including:
- Cyber threat activity is increasing around the world and Canada is not immune;
- A small number of nation-states have undertaken most cyber threat activity against democratic processes worldwide;
- At the federal level, political candidates, parties and voters – through online media platforms – are more vulnerable than elections themselves.
Since we published our June 2017 report, cyber threat activity against democratic processes has become even more prevalent worldwide. We assess that the likelihood of cyber threats targeting Canada’s democratic process during the 2019 federal election has increased.
This update focuses on cyber threat activity undertaken by foreign adversaries with the intention of interfering with democratic processes. We distinguish these foreign adversaries from other threat actors, such as cybercriminals, who generally do not have the intention to interfere with democratic processes, but may do so incidentally as they pursue other objectives. While it is extremely difficult to measure the effect of cyber threat activity on the outcome of an election, even the perception of foreign interference can diminish trust in democracy.
Despite the increasing global cyber threat to democratic processes, there have been some positive developments since the publication of our 2017 assessment. Extensive media coverage and analysis of foreign cyber interference has greatly raised public awareness of the potential threat, as has more frequent reporting and public attribution of major cyber incidents by CSE and allies. Internet companies have indicated a willingness to reduce the illegitimate use of their platforms that could lead to foreign cyber interference.
Furthermore, in 2018, authorities charged individuals based in Russia with interfering in the 2016 United States presidential election, representing a shift from identifying and defending against malicious activity to confronting and prosecuting cyber threats to the democratic process in the United States.
WHY TARGET CANADA’S DEMOCRATIC PROCESS?
CANADA IN THE WORLD
Canada is a G7 country, a NATO member, and an active member of the international community. As a result, the choices that the Government of Canada makes about military deployments, trade and investment agreements, diplomatic engagements, foreign aid, or immigration policy are of interest to other states. Canada’s stance can affect the core interests of other countries, foreign groups, and individuals. 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.
CANADA IS ONLINE, AS ARE FOREIGN ADVERSARIES
Living in one of the most connected societies in the world, Canadians must be more vigilant against cyber tools than those in less connected nations. The vast majority of Canadians use the services provided by major Internet companies to obtain information, communicate with one another, and build communities.Endnote1 Foreign adversaries wanting to interfere with the democratic process in Canada may take advantage of our highly connected society and use cyber tools to amplify their interference activity in Canada.
FOREIGN ADVERSARIES HAVE INVESTED IN CYBER POWER
Cyber capabilities have become another means for nation states to further their interests around the world. Increasingly, foreign adversaries consider cyber power as a way of pursuing their strategic objectives: national security, economic prosperity, and even advancing a regime’s political and broader ideological goals. Foreign adversaries use cyber tools because they are relatively cheap and deniable ways to complement traditional diplomatic or military action or espionage.
Figure 1: Canadians and the Internet (based on CIRA.CA dataEndnote2)
Figure 1 - Description
Canadians use the Internet a great deal in their lives and to access information according to the Canadian Internet Registry Authority: 86% have a broadband connection at home; 74% spend 3-4 hours online each day; 48% use social media as a source of news; 54% are somewhat confident in their ability to recognize disinformation; 74% are concerned about the spread of disinformation line; 77% use Facebook; 35% use LinkedIn; 35% use Instagram; 26% use Twitter; and 19% use Snapchat.
POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF CYBER THREAT ACTIVITY AGAINST THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS
The short-term consequences include:
- Burying legitimate information or polarizing social discourse;
- Affecting the popularity of, or support for candidates;
- Calling into question the legitimacy of the election process;
- Promoting a desired election outcome; and
- Distracting voters from important election issues.
Cyber threat activity against the democratic process can also yield mid- and long-term consequences, including:
- Reducing the public’s trust in the democratic process;
- Polarizing social discourse;
- Creating divisions in international alliances;
- Weakening confidence in leaders;
- Dissuading qualified candidates from pursuing elected office; and
- Promoting foreign economic, geopolitical, or ideological interests
Figure 2: Why do nation-states use cyber capabilities to influence democratic processes of foreign countries?
Figure 2 - Description
There are three types of goals nation-states pursue when using cyber capabilities to influence democratic processes of foreign countries. Immediate goals include: to affect the popularity of candidates; to call into question the legitimacy of an election process; and to promote a desired outcome. Mid-term goals include: to polarize political discourse and to weaken confidence in leaders. Long-term goals include to promote foreign economic, ideological, or military interests; to reduce confidence in democracy; and to create divisions in international alliances.