One Last Thing

Reality of Cyber Espionage

My introduction to the world of state espionage in Canada began in the mid 90’s with a phone call from a Liberal Cabinet Minister looking for help. The Minister had been alerted to some extremely serious, and substantiated, evidence of coordinated hostile activity by a foreign ­government within Canada. The evidence actually came from dedicated Canadian government officials and it exposed an incredibly complex web of organized crime, “business” investment, deliberate infiltration of institutions and disturbing political associations. Astonishingly for my straight arrow Ministerial friend, instead of prompting action from responsible officials, no one within Government seemed interested in hearing about these alarming revelations, much less doing anything about them.

At the time, I was the Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, and much of my job involved unravelling the purposely obtuse intricacies of the Canadian justice system to explain why changes were necessary. I’d previously served as a Crown Prosecutor in Alberta and been involved in covert police investigations, biker prosecutions and the special joy that is dealing with informants. As such, I figured that meeting with the Minister and his ‘source’ would simply be a matter of getting the details straightened out and positioned to tell the story and generate action. Sort of like Chinese checkers.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Fast forward 15 years and we are still officially tip toeing around harmful espionage activities in Canada which have evolved in complexity and scope to the detriment of our national security. As such, it is heartening to see Canada’s first ever Conference on protecting against espionage, because acknowledging reality is the first step in confronting it.

First of all, the classic definition of ­’espionage’ is out of date. The targets have expanded because our adversaries have ­correctly assessed that there is strategic value in acquiring business intelligence – if only for the economic advantage and the leverage it provides.

Second, ‘spying’ is no longer the exclusive mandate of state professionals. Countries like China have adopted a strategy that any of their citizens, especially those in Canada, are assets to be exploited in a variety of roles, from the mundane to the murky. It must also be acknowledged that, for whatever reason, there are far too many who don’t say ‘no’ the Motherland.

Modern espionage has also moved beyond acquiring sensitive information. It now includes securing political and even bureaucratic influence which is not simply reflected in actions taken but also includes having persons in authority decide that looking the other way is in their own personal best interests. How many politicians and senior officials have realized, after the fact, that maybe being in that picture with those nice people ‘sponsoring’ the event wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Protecting our security also means removing people from positions of potential influence, now or in the future, if they’re not capable of appreciating what a ‘honey pot’ is and resisting the urge to get in one.

Today’s espionage, in Canada and elsewhere, also features an especially alarming exploitation of our utterly reckless cyber dependency. Whether it’s hacking into systems to steal information or to disable critical infrastructure, now or in the future, espionage has a new front which we have walked into eyes wide closed. Acknowledging the truly critical state of our cyber vulnerability in Canada is long overdue, and changing the bureaucratic nameplates or issuing a new Strategy Paper claiming ‘leadership’ simply isn’t enough this time. We know how, where and why we’re vulnerable; it’s time to take effective action.

Another challenge is that modern espionage now includes actions that are intended to undermine the interests, security and stability of our country. This kind of deliberate, if sometimes subtle, subversion includes foreign states like China, and non state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its multiple derivative organizations.

We need to put aide our arrogance and start thinking the way these hostile actors do, especially by recognizing that our ­cherished freedoms are viewed by others as weaknesses to be exploited. That requires fully understanding exactly who we’re dealing with and not blindly ­assuming good faith.

Fifteen years ago, the meeting with the Minister and a brilliant and honourable ­public servant named Brian McAdam led to an RCMP and CSIS investigation into the extent of Chinese espionage activities in Canada, including the deliberate cultivation of politicians. The Report was called ‘Project Sidewinder’ and its findings, which were dismissed and (unsuccessfully) ordered destroyed by CSIS, have proven to be both accurate and prophetic.

For years thereafter, this issue was driven by careerist self interest that ­concluded that the political powers that be didn’t want to hear about this threat, so ‘look the other way’ became the best way to get ahead. Fortunately, recent CSIS Directors Jim Judd and Richard Fadden appear to have rejected this approach. Their public warnings about the Chinese espionage threat have been blunt and unequivocal. They’ve also been accurate.

The current espionage threat to Canada is real and undeniable. What’s called for now is the courage and integrity to set aside past ­inaction and the perceived risk from acknowledging that by candidly identifying what’s going on and who’s involved. Let’s follow the truth no matter where it takes us or who is involved.

Scott Newark is FrontLine’s Associate Editor.
© FrontLine Security 2011