Cyber Threats To Canada's Democratic Process

Global Trends And The Threat To Canada

Canadian Context

Cyber Threats To Canada’s Democratic Process

Cyber threat activity affecting the democratic process in Canada is a small fraction of the much larger global experience. During the 2015 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.Endnote 20

The next federal election in Canada is set to occur in 2019. Setting aside unforeseeable events, we judge that, almost certainly, multiple hacktivist groups will deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process in 2019. Hacktivists will likely study the success of past influence operations and adopt more sophisticated and successful activities.

While much of this activity will be low-sophistication, we expect that some influence activities will be well-planned and target more than one aspect of the democratic process, and could almost be characterized as medium-sophistication.

Nation-states have demonstrated the highest sophistication (mostly medium and high, but some low) and a small number of nation-states have undertaken the majority of the cyber activity against democratic processes worldwide. Nation-states also use non-cyber methods (e.g. traditional espionage, manipulation and coercion, or state-sponsored newspapers and television stations) to try to influence the media and political parties and politicians.

Against Canada, nation-states are constantly deploying cyber capabilities to try to gain access to Government of Canada networks and the communications of federal government officials.Endnote 21

Terrorist groups have not demonstrated the intent to use cyber capabilities to influence democratic processes globally or in Canada. However, some groups have demonstrated that they are capable of using cyber capabilities, orchestrating a wide range of activities and manipulating traditional and social media.

To date, we have not observed nation-states using cyber capabilities with the purpose of influencing the Canadian democratic process during an election. We assess that whether this remains the case in 2019 will depend on how nation-state adversaries perceive Canada’s foreign and domestic policies over the next two years, and on the spectrum of policies espoused by Canadian federal candidates in 2019.

We assess that the threat to the democratic process in relation to Canada's sub-national elections is very likely to remain at its current low levels.

Outside Canada, corrupt political actors use cyber capabilities to influence their domestic democratic processes, although this represents only 9 percent of observed activity. Given the prevalence of cyber capabilities and the advantages they confer, it is likely that political actors outside Canada will increasingly avail themselves of these capabilities to shape their political fortune. As Canada ranks low in corruption, this type of activity is far more likely to be seen elsewhere.Endnote 22

Looking beyond the federal level, in Canada, CSE has no indication that the democratic process has been targeted in relation to the thousands of elections held at the provincial/territorial or municipal level over the past five years. This is good news.

We assess that the threat to the democratic process in relation to Canada’s sub-national elections is very likely to remain at its current low levels. However, the trends we identify above are likely to act as a tailwind, putting some of Canada’s provincial/territorial and municipal political parties and politicians, electoral activities, and relevant media under increasing threat.

In particular, we know that certain nation-states have core interests that can be affected by Canadian policies related to natural resources, which are often made at the provincial/territorial level. In addition, Canada has provincial/territorial and municipal leaders that have made policies and statements garnering national and international attention. Hacktivists may begin to view sub-national elections, political parties and politicians, and the media as worthy targets.