Elections consider the Hybrid Threat

With the October general election less than 9 months away, the Canadian government is ramping up efforts to ensure that neither the campaign nor the vote itself are influenced by malicious, net-based interference. The latest development in the government’s approach to security came in late January when officials from multiple departments and agencies, as well as a couple of key private-sector players – namely Facebook and Microsoft – gathered at Global Affairs Canada headquarters for a two-day workshop coordinated by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE).

In addition to Global Affairs, participants included the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and its Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS) arm, Elections Canada, the RCMP, Public Safety, National Defence, Heritage Canada, and Democratic Institutions (a section within the Privy Council Office).

Elections Canada is responsible for ensuring the security of its own information technology (IT) resources during a campaign and vote. However, it has worked closely with the CSE, which already has been providing advice and guidance to all registered federal political parties as part of a long-term workup to the 21 October 2019 election.

At a recent press briefing, the government announced that it will be enhancing that process going forward. “For the first time our security agencies will provide direct security briefings to key members of national political campaigns, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said at the 30 Jan 2019 news conference. “They will need to obtain the appropriate security clearance in advance. These multi-partisan campaign officials will be able to receive regular briefings including classified information on the foreign interference activities both cyber and human that target Canadian democratic institutions.

From left: Ministers Sajjan (Defence), Gould (Democratic Institutions), and Goodale (Public Safety) brief the press about plans to thwart potential cyber interference related to the upcoming ­election.

While the Hybrid CoE workshop on countering election interference by state and non-state entities was a closed event subject to Chatham House Rules and non-disclosure agreements, the CoE’s head of communications, Païvi Tampere, explained that Russian aggression led to the creation of the Centre of Excellence. “It was the annexation of Crimea, what happened in the Ukraine (in February-March 2014),” she told FrontLine. “It was a big wake-up call for the western states. I think that was the biggest single trigger.”

Russia’s thinly-disguised kinetic invasion was accompanied by subversive social media campaigns designed to undermine liberal democracies in the European Union and further afield by planting false stories intended to be picked up and disseminated by mainstream media. In many respects, the West was unknowingly embroiled in a political war unique to an increasingly digitized world.

“Disinformation campaigns have an important role in the process of election interference,” Tampere tweeted during the Ottawa workshop. “Awareness of how opinions are formed and how human cognition works is vital for countering these campaigns.” However, she also recognizes that “improvement of media literacy and increase of debunking activities won’t alone solve the problem of disinformation.”

The CoE’s member states currently include: Austria, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the United States.

Russia’s determination to press its case by any measure was confirmed last February by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director whose investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election campaign is ongoing.

Mueller’s team reported that the Russian disinformation campaign, Project Lakhta, had a monthly budget of more than $1 million in the runup to the American election. Posing as Americans, the Russians evidently gathered information on where best to target its efforts to “sow discord” and to boost Trump’s prospects as the Republican candidate while undermining his Democratic Party challenger, Hillary Clinton.

Republicans and Democrats alike call on social media companies to do more to prevent political interference through their networks. Facebook has said it had worked “proactively” with the Mueller investigation but CEO Mark Zuckerberg conceded that it needs to do more to prevent recurrences. Twitter said “tech companies cannot defeat this novel, shared threat alone.”

Insofar as the Hybrid CoE is concerned, Canada is a relative latecomer, having joined only last October, a month after the CCCS was officially created. When CCCS Director General Colleen Merchant confirmed Canada’s decision, Hybrid CoE director Matti Saarelainen said Canada would “bring a lot of competence and expertise to our networks of practitioners and we are all looking forward to close cooperation.”

Oct 2018 (Brussels) – Director of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, Colleen Merchant, joins Hybrid CoE director, Matti Saarelainen, during ceremony for Canada joining the Centre.

The government’s commitment is reflected in how the CCCS is being staffed with approximately 750 personnel from cyber security operations units at the CSE (its entire IT security branch), Public Safety Canada (all functions of the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre and the “Get Cyber Safe” public awareness campaign), and Shared Services Canada (some functions of its Security Operations Centre).

The Ottawa workshop is the latest in a series of national-level events, and reflects the fact that tackling threats to democratic institutions such as the electoral process is an ever-evolving challenge. “The purpose of the training is to gather a cross-governmental group of practitioners together to discuss election interference and to exercise response,” Tampere said.

While the training evidently relies on gaming, the threat to Canada is more than theoretical. Jānis Sārts, director at the NATO Strategic Communications CoE in Riga, Latvia, has warned that Russia will try to meddle in the upcoming Canadian election, saying that efforts in the U.S. and several EU member states, indicated that Canada is a logical target.

Destabilizing Canada, he said, would “undermine” not only Canadian policy in Europe but also the fundamental “cohesion” of NATO while enabling Russian President Vladimir Putin – whose personal popularity has been waning at home – to project strength by showing that “other countries” fear Russia. “The moment somebody can question the integrity of the elections and the election result, democracy is in trouble.”

According to an aide to Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, the Canadian government is sensitive to the issue. “We are closely following how our allies are addressing these challenges,” she said in a published interview. The goal is “to ensure than Canadians can continue to trust in our democratic institutions.”

The aide also highlighted the need for social media companies to “address issues related to foreign interference in elections,” noting that while “they have taken some initial positive first steps . . . more needs to be done.”

A key element of Canada’s plan going forward is an eagerly-anticipated CCCS update of a June 2017 CSE report Canada’s ability to defend against possible online threats to the next general election. As for timing, all the CCCS would say, in a January 24 email, was that the update “will be released in early 2019, well in advance of the 2019 federal election.”

The need for heightened security was underscored at a NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Halifax. California Democrat Susan Davis, a senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, told the NATO Science and Technology Committee that Russian interference had continued in the early stages of the recent U.S. mid-term elections, albeit not on the scale seen during the 2016 election that saw Donald Trump elected president.

Last year, Facebook admitted that hundreds of dubious accounts, likely Russian-sourced, spent about $100,000 on some 3,000 ads about contentious issues such as race, human rights immigration and guns. Facebook subsequently said an estimated 10 million U.S. residents saw the ads.

While in Halifax, NATO Deputy Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, a former U.S. Under­secretary for International Security at the State Department, commented: “there’s a lot of creativity among the bad guys.”

She pointed out that the Canadian-led NATO Battle Group in Latvia had been bombarded by a stream of bogus information aimed at undermining the year-old mission. “The Russians are pumping out a lot of reports about misbehaviour of Canadian troops and how expensive the (battle group) is for Latvia.” However, she said Canadian Armed Forces personnel on the ground have responded by explaining their presence to Latvian locals. “It’s a great example of how Canada […] has made a difference pushing back against disinformation.”

Pauline Neville-Jones, a former career diplomat and cabinet minister and then chair of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, said Russians use algorithms to distribute false stories that are aimed at sowing division and distrust. “In the case of Canada, (they) would find it very interesting to try to destabilize your relationship with the United States,” she said. “That gets at the sinews of western democracy. It gets at the sinews of NATO relationships. […] They see international relations as a zero-sum game: ‘if you’re losing, then I’m winning’.”

Tampere says the selection of her homeland to host the CoE, was a logical choice. “Finland has been building a comprehensive security model where different ministries are closely working with each other and also, when public and private sector are having close cooperation to improve resilience and to prepare for different kinds of crisis situations. […] Election interference is just one of the topics we are focusing on,” she says.

On the topic of mainstream media, the CoE’s mission turns to education. “We want to engage more journalists in our work,” suggesting tabletop exercises for journalists who can play through scenarios “to get a better understanding” of what the hybrid threat is.

Western media are among the direct targets. For example, a 2016 report by the University of Toronto showed how Russian hackers had “phished” the emails of a U.S. journalist, David Satter. Writing for The Wall Street Journal while living in Moscow, Satter had been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin before being expelled from Russia in 2013. The hackers disseminated emails that contained a mix of altered and unaltered files – a tactic the report said could help the resulting files “survive initial scrutiny” by those seeking corroboration.

Tampere suggests that having state and non-state actors “piling in” with “coordinated and synchronized hostile activities against member states” requires a similar level of response from the countries being targetted. “The hybrid adversary tries to organize the activities so that they […] subvert the electoral process as clandestinely as possible,” she notes. But if society connects the dots and notices that “something odd” is going on, it defeats their purpose, so the adversary tries to stay below a certain threshold of activity. “If you are unable to attribute activities, it also affects your response.”

In addition to hacks and net-based disinformation campaigns, is the reality that hostile states “could try to buy companies whose responsibility is, for example, to take care of critical infrastructure,” notably telecommunications and energy systems. This too can create economic and social unrest, creating additional challenges for governments.

Antonio Missiroli, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, said during a recent meeting of EU and NATO officials that the alliance is “pleased with the progress made to enhance our preparedness and resilience.”

But he acknowledges the need to be ever vigilant. “Our focus will remain on strengthening the ways in which we share information, train, educate, and exercise together to ensure that we have the most robust tools possible for responding to growing cyber threats.”

While the Trudeau government has concluded that Russia had indeed interfered in Canada’s October 2015 general election (with what the CSE described as “low sophistication” cyber attacks), they do not believe the final outcome was influenced. However, the ensuing years have clearly underscored the need for heightened vigilance, especially for a government that hasn’t been shy about using sanctions against Russian and other foreign interests.

The government’s determination to be ready to forestall election interference was underscored at the 30 Jan 2019 news conference with Ministers Gould, Goodale, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

At the Jan. 31 news conference with Goodale and Sajjan, Gould noted that “the United States, the UK, France and Germany have all experienced degrees of foreign interference.” Accordingly, the government has been “watching and learning” from their experiences” in developing a four-element protection plan.

In addition to basically “combating foreign interference,” it includes stronger organizational readiness, an expectation that social media platforms will help, and enhancing voter preparedness.

Sajjan mentioned how the 2017 CSE report clearly showed that Canada’s electoral system and democratic institutions are not immune to foreign meddling. “It found that cyber threat activity against the democratic process is increasing around the world. It also concluded that Canada could be targeted by any of our adversaries.”

Continued collaboration between the CSE, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Elections Canada and GAC will be critical, says Sajjan. “At the G7 Summit in Charlevoix last summer, partner nations agreed to a rapid response mechanism,” he confirmed, noting the unit “will be tasked with sharing information and threat analysis and critically identifying opportunities for coordinated responses.”

Goodale has no issue with other governments trying to shape public opinion in a bid to advance their own national interests as long as it’s done peacefully and transparent manner. “It’s called diplomacy or treaty negotiations.” However, “when that type of activity . . . consists of lies and disinformation aimed at misleading people, destabilizing the economy or society or manipulating the democratic process, a bright red line gets crossed.”

He said foreign interference is increasingly “higher tech”, including the use of social media to falsely slander elected officials. “Trolls and bots are dispatched to stoke anxiety, even hysteria, around sensitive issues. Fake news masquerades as legitimate information. As we’ve seen, these issues are of deep concern among G7 and Five Eyes partners. […] They’re intended to corrode systems and pervert the course of democracy.”

Goodale also challenged domestic news media to set “high standards of reporting and analysis” to avoid being manipulated by “those who would masquerade as legitimate but whose strings are pulled by foreign authorities. Social media platforms also had a responsibility to ensure “they are contributing to and not detracting from political discourse.”

Gould echoed that, saying the government expects social media “to take concrete actions to help safeguard this fall’s election by promoting transparency, authenticity and integrity” and to that end was committing $7 million towards digital news and civic literacy programming which she said should help voters to critically assess news reporting and editorials, and to know how and when malicious actors exploit online platforms.

Asked to explain the kind of threshold the government would set for alerting Canadians of problems during an election campaign, Gould replied that any attempted interference needs “to be something that is compromising the ability for a free and fair election to take place.”

When it was suggested that the news media themselves were “one of the weakest links” in the electoral ecosystem, she said media is critical to a robust democracy and that journalists need to engage more with organizations such as NATO’s strategic communications arm, which had offered members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery a session last fall.

“It was not as well attended as one might have expected,” noted Gould. Nevertheless, it was “a good first step” and NATO has been invited back. “They have done good work with journalists throughout NATO countries,” she said. “I would encourage journalists, news outlets to engage with them on best practices in other countries, particularly our allied countries because the media does play such an important role when it comes to how Canadians consume information.”

– Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine magazine.