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University of Waterloo prof urges Canadian voters to check facts ahead of fall federal election

The Waterloo Record with Veronica Kitchen 10 April 2019

The federal government says it is “very likely” the 2019 election will be targeted by foreign cyber interference, and a local security expert says that puts the onus on voters to check their facts before heading to the polls this fall.

In a report released Monday, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) said interference will likely come in the form of misinformation spread online through social media and untrustworthy websites.

“If a (news) report sounds implausible, maybe check it against a well-known Canadian news source to see if they are also reporting it,” said Veronica Kitchen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs.

“We still have enough good journalists in this country that they’ll be reporting it.”

Canada is unlikely to see a repeat of Russia’s widespread meddling during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Instead, foreign adversaries could attempt to sway the ideas and decisions of voters in more subtle ways by focusing on polarizing social or political issues, or by promoting the popularity of one party over another, the report said.

“We recognize that foreign adversaries may use cyber technology to interfere and influence Canadians like they have done in other countries,” Karina Gould, minister of democratic institutions, said in a news release that accompanied the report. Cyberattacks against elections in advanced democracies have increased threefold since the last federal election in 2015.

Voters are now the single largest target of cyber threat activity during elections, the report found, meaning voters need digital literacy skills to spot false or misleading information, Kitchen said.

“We should be skeptical of information, but deciding which information to be skeptical of is the challenge,” Kitchen said.

The CSE believes voters will be the primary target because it’s easier to change the mind of voters than it is to change the outcome of the election itself, especially with Canada’s paper ballot system.

“Cyber threat actors very likely see changing a vote count in a national election as difficult and very likely consider it impossible against elections that use hand-counted paper ballots, such as the Canadian federal election,” the report stated.

Monday’s report was an update on an earlier cyber threat assessment released in 2017. Kitchen said there’s been a move toward more transparency by Canada’s security agencies in recent years, “and I think that’s a good thing.” The updated report was more earnest about the risk of cyber threats to the upcoming election.

At a news conference Monday morning, Gould said it was important to release the report to the public so all Canadians “can become truly aware” of the threats facing them as they prepare to vote this fall.

Aside from voters, the report noted two other groups likely to be targeted by cyber interference:

• Political parties, candidates and their staff;

• The election itself, by “altering content on websites, social media accounts, and networks and devices used by Elections Canada.”

The CSE did not explicitly state which nations or groups it suspects will attempt to interfere with the election, but did state Russia’s Internet Research Agency is known to create illegitimate websites to host “false and misleading information framed as independent online journalism or personal blogs.”

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians also recognized Russia and China as cyber threats to Canada in its annual report released Tuesday.

The federal government has taken several steps to safeguard the upcoming election, including establishing the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force to help the government assess and respond to attacks.

The government also introduced Bill C-59 in 2017, which would revamp the country’s national security infrastructure and give CSE the power to defend the election if it comes under cyberattack. The bill is currently before the Senate.