Cyber Threats To Canada's Democratic Process

How The Democratic Process Is Targeted

Target: Political Parties and Politicians

  • Key threat: Conduct cyberespionage against a political target
  • Key threat: Blackmail a political target
  • Key threat: Embarrass or discredit a political target
  • Key threat: Steal or manipulate voter or party database

During the electoral process, voters are judging and assessing political parties and politicians as they decide who will get their vote. Political parties and politicians try to persuade voters using specific messages and ideas. Adversaries may try to obtain damaging information to gain control over individuals and/or sway public opinion against them.

Conduct Cyberespionage

Political parties and politicians use smartphones, devices, and computers to handle and store personal and political information. This can include databases with detailed personal information about millions of Canadians, both registered voters and political donors. Political parties are authorized to receive parts of the voter registry from election bodies, and they may supplement this with more detailed information about voters. Personal and political information is valuable, enticing adversaries to use cyberespionage to gain access.Endnote 12


Blackmail Or Manipulate A Target: Use Information Or Threaten To Release Information

Adversaries may choose to use private information about a politician (or political staff) to try to manipulate or coerce the individual. This type of activity could involve blackmail, bribery, or orchestrating situations to attempt to push the target into behaviours or activities that would otherwise not occur.


Embarrass Or Discredit A Target: Releasing Information

Another way adversaries can target political parties and politicians is by first collecting information (as above), then releasing it to the public for the purpose of embarrassing or discrediting the target. In order to enhance this effect, an adversary may make modifications to the information before releasing it to the public. Adversaries might use a third party (e.g. journalists or WikiLeaks) to try to increase the legitimacy of the information and to keep their identities hidden or less obvious. The purpose of this activity is to embarrass or discredit the target, or to help the target’s political rival.

Embarrass Or Discredit A Target: Meddling With Websites Or Social Media

Another way to discredit a political party or politician is to disable or compromise their presence on the Internet. For example, adversaries can target a social media account or a website and deface it with obscene or misleading information, which can fool voters and embarrass the politician. Depending on the timing of such an event, the impact could range from mere nuisance to a major turning point in a close election campaign.

The cyber capabilities required to disable a website are relatively simple to buy or rent, which allows adversaries who do not possess technical abilities to easily and cheaply acquire them to accomplish their goals.

When adversaries try to publicly embarrass or discredit a target, they are doing so with the intent that it will enter the mainstream news cycle, knocking a party “off message”, even if only temporarily. The media itself can also be targeted in order to influence the political process and public opinion. This is discussed in the next section.

In the long term, this type of activity can have a chilling effect on democracy. Qualified candidates may decide that running for public office is simply not worth the potential negative effect on their personal life and reputation.

Steal Or Manipulate Voter Or Party Database

Adversaries might steal voter or party databases because they fetch a price on illicit parts of the Internet (i.e. the Darkweb), where large quantities of personal identity information are constantly bought and sold.Endnote 14

Adversaries might also decide to change data, or make it unavailable (e.g. by encrypting it) to political parties and politicians that use the information to identify and communicate with voters. If adversaries targeted a political party with this activity, it could impact the election campaign by denying the party a valuable tool used for voter outreach and engagement.