OTTAWA — The Canadian government isn’t getting enough co-operation from the world’s big social-media companies to head off foreign interference in Canada’s upcoming federal election, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould warned Monday.

Based on international cases of election meddling, “there is a lot left to be desired in terms of how seriously they’re taking these issues,” she said.

“I’m not feeling great about where we are right now.”

Federal officials have had several discussions with online platforms such as Facebook and Google on how they plan to protect Canadians during the national electoral process, Gould told a news conference.

“We have not really seen that much progress with them. I think that the platforms feel that this is something that they should be doing on their own,” Gould said.

Google Canada swiftly responded Monday by saying the company had met several times with the minister and her staff, Elections Canada, the commissioner of elections and the Privy Council Office to discuss its plans on transparency, cybersecurity and information.

Facebook Canada said it had devoted significant time and energy to the issues, and pledged to introduce new tools for advertisers before the end of June to ensure authenticity and transparency are at the core of paid political advertising on the platform.

Gould, however, suggested Canada might move to regulate social-media companies through a code of practice, legislation or another such tool, saying they have been able to “avoid being held to account for the activities that take place on their platforms for too long.”

Her message came as a new report from the national cyberspy agency warned that Canadian voters will very likely experience some kind of online foreign meddling related to the October ballot.

In an assessment released Monday, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment said that last year, half of all advanced democracies holding national elections were targeted by cyberthreat activity.

It’s a threefold increase since 2015, and the Ottawa-based CSE expects the upward trend to continue this year.

While Canada can anticipate interference in the coming election, the CSE says, the malicious activity is unlikely to be on the scale of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The report suggests Canada should expect foreign adversaries to exploit cyberspace to sway voters by focusing on polarizing social and political issues, promoting the popularity of one party over another, or trying to shape the public statements and policy choices of a candidate.

Malign actors also use cybertools to target the websites, email, social-media accounts, networks and devices of political parties, candidates and their staff, the report adds.

The CSE’s assessment comes just six months before Canadians head to the polls.

It is likely that adversaries will try to deface websites or steal personal information that could be used to send out incorrect information to Canadians, causing some kind of disruption to the election process, the report said.

The aim of such activity would be to “sow doubt among voters,” making them question the election’s legitimacy or discouraging them from even taking part.

Nefarious actors hijack Twitter accounts or open new ones that tweet about popular subjects like sports or entertainment to gain followers, the CSE noted. “However, these accounts then switch to political messaging with Canadian themes following international events involving Canada.”

The report cited a 2016 episode in which false information appeared online about a “failed Canadian raid” against Russian separatist positions in Ukraine, alleging that 11 Canadian military personnel were killed. People shared an English-language version of the item over 3,000 times on Facebook.

Considerable evidence has pointed to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In 2017, Facebook said hundreds of dubious accounts, likely operated out of Russia, spent about $100,000 on some 3,000 ads about contentious issues such as LGBT rights, race, immigration and guns from June 2015 to May 2017.

Facebook later said an estimated 10 million people in the United States saw the ads.

In addition, the U.S. Justice Department has announced indictments against Russian intelligence agents for allegedly hacking Democratic party emails and computers during the 2016 campaign.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned last week that malicious foreign players would target Canada’s coming election, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed a finger at Moscow as the most likely meddler.

The Russian Embassy in Canada responded by tweeting that “Blaming Moscow for fake #meddling is pure disinformation” and an attempt “to distract public attention from real issues.”

At the news conference, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said “we know for a fact that Russia has interfered in elections.” But he added that the CSE’s report was about creating a system to ensure the government sees the entire spectrum of threats.

The report said an increasing number of foreign adversaries have the tools, the organizational capacity and a sufficient understanding of the Canadian political landscape to try to fiddle with the October ballot, should they have the inclination.

“Even if a foreign adversary does develop strategic intent to interfere with Canada’s democratic process, we consider foreign cyberinterference of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election improbable at this time,” the report said.

“However, we judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyberinterference ahead of, and during, the 2019 federal election.”

A group of five senior public servants will decide whether an act of foreign interference warrants ringing the public alarm bell about a serious threat to the election. 

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press


The Canadian Press