Cyber Threats To Canada's Democratic Process

Explaining Cyber Threat Activity

Cyber Capabilities: Sophisticated Uses

As discussed earlier, cybercriminals and thrill-seekers use cyber capabilities for financial gain or for the thrill of it. We are more concerned with adversaries who use cyber capabilities strategically, with the express intent of covertly influencing the democratic process. As with any type of tool, cyber capabilities can be used in amateurish or sophisticated ways.

When assessing the sophistication of these strategic threats to the democratic process, we consider a combination of three things:

  1. Technical sophistication of the cyber capabilities: Some cyber capabilities are easily obtained on the Internet and require little skill to deploy. More sophisticated capabilities, however, are custom-designed for a particular set of circumstances (e.g. to gain access to a particular smartphone or computer network) and require much more skill to build and deploy.
  2. Knowledge of Canada’s democratic process and how it can be manipulated: Canada’s democratic process includes elections, political parties and politicians, media, and other institutions, ideas, and events that, when taken together, constitute a very complicated and dynamic environment. More sophisticated strategic threat activity reflects an understanding of the environment of a democratic process and how it could be influenced through the use of cyber capabilities.
  3. Ability to orchestrate activities and people: An individual acting alone is far less likely to influence a democratic process than an adversary that can coordinate a number of activities and groups of people. More sophisticated adversaries make use of organizational and financial capacity, which is often built up over time.

In general, we assume that the more sophisticated the use of cyber capabilities, the more likely it is to influence the outcome of a given democratic process (see Figure 11 below). However, as noted in point two above, a democratic process is a complicated and dynamic environment, and many things besides adversaries influence a democratic process and can account for its outcome. In general, it is very difficult to say whether a given set of adversary activities has influenced the outcome of a given democratic process and to what extent.

Figure 11: Description of sophistication

Level Of Sophistication Sophistication Characteristics Adversaries Observed
  • Uses a single, simple cyber capability
  • Single target
  • Little or no planning involved
  • Likely impact: nuisance, no lasting effect on anybody
  • Nation-states, hacktivists, cybercriminals, political actors, thrill-seekers
  • A few cyber capabilities used competently
  • More than one target
  • Planning required
  • Likely impact: Multiple people affected, divert time and resources to dealing with activity
  • Nation-states, hacktivists, political actors
  • Several cyber capabilities used expertly
  • Numerous targets
  • Extensive, long-term planning and coordination
  • Likely impact: numerous people affected and forced to divert significant time and resources to counter the activity
  • Nation-states, political actors

To illustrate how adversaries use cyber capabilities strategically to influence the democratic process, we present two hypothetical case studies. The first is a description of activities designed to sway public opinion against a political candidate. The second is a description of activities in which cyberespionage is used to obtain campaign strategy documents and personal information to benefit a political rival.