Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If you learned that Canada’s Security Intelligence Service was warning us about foreign interference in what should be an upcoming election, what would you picture? Probably this kind of stuff, right?
News Clip: Just last month, a special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Robert Mueller, indicted 13 Russian nationals and charged them with tampering with the US election will make…
News Clip 2: The indictment accuses the Russians who worked out of this building in most of stealing American identities, setting up fake accounts on Facebook and other social media sites, and spreading false and inflammatory information.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It is true that Canada has long been planning for attempts to disrupt our elections via disinformation and social media, but that’s not what CSIS was warning us about this time. Instead, as everyone wonders when Canadians will go to the polls, our intelligence agency is on the lookout for things that you might have thought were left behind in favour of cyber attacks, hacking and bots. They’re warning us about things like blackmail, bribery, and old fashioned threats to people who they feel can move the needle in one place or another. So which nations exactly is CSIS watching for? And what are those nations’ goals? How tangible are the threats to our election? And how have we weathered these kind of attacks in the past? What’s changed as intelligence agencies have become more and more adept at finding disinformation and cyber attacks. And given that we’re preparing for just about anything right now, what still keeps people in Canada’s intelligence community up at night?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor at Carlton University. More importantly, for today’s conversation, she is the author of ‘Stand on Guard, Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security’. Hey, Stephanie.
Stephanie Carvin: Hey, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t we start with this? We’re expecting an election sometime soon, and there’s a new CSIS report out about foreign interference. Can you tell me about it?
Stephanie Carvin: Yeah. It’s interesting. We have had reports from the Communication Security Establishment that’s a separate agency that looks at cyber threats. And they’ve been putting out reports repetitively since really, 2017 on threats to democracy and Canada’s election infrastructure for some time. But this is the first time that our actual human intelligence spy, so the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. has put out a report on what they see as threats to the election. It’s an interesting report. It doesn’t actually say a lot. It doesn’t name names. But if you can read between the lines, there’s some interesting findings there. For example, says that it believes the threat from foreign interference to elections is increasing. And when spy agencies don’t say that lightly, it’s a pretty dramatic thing for them to say. In addition, they actually also provide a pretty good overview of how this threat actually manifests in Canada and what that actually looks like. I think to a large extent, when we think of foreign influence, we tend to think of Russia interfering in the 2016 US election.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Stephanie Carvin: But that’s not really what it looks like in Canada, right? It looks a little bit different, actually. It looks a lot different. And it also doesn’t happen just online. It also happens in person. And that’s why it’s important, I think, for CSIS to have put out this report, because it effectively explains the fact that, you know, this isn’t just an online activity. It happens in real life, even in a pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, that’s what I was going to say is, you know, the idea of foreign election interference conjures to mind bots and accounts that are created in troll farms and etc, etc. But this report seems like really old school, like boots on the ground spy stuff. Can you explain what that actually looks like in person?
Stephanie Carvin: Right. So, again, that’s just it. So we tend to think of Twitter bots online, kind of tweeting crazy things, but even that’s becoming more sophisticated, and we can talk about that. But when really I would say a lot of the foreign influence activity that happens in Canada is actually in person. And really, I think that’s what this report does try to break down. And it talks about the different kinds of ways that foreign actors try and influence our elections. So, for example, one way is bribery, right? You can try to bribe people to do certain things, whether it’s to put out messaging or try to control people or those kinds of things. You can do blackmail.
So this is kind of pretty old school spy stuff. If you get compromising material on a candidate or in a political party or things like that and try to engage in some kind of blackmail. You can threaten people if they’re speaking out on certain issues that are important to them. They may get calls in the middle of the night saying, Hey, stop talking about this particular issue. I mean, it’s not related to our election, but certainly some pro Hong Kong activists who are concerned about what’s happening there with regards to China. They have been, for example, reporting getting calls in the middle of the night, kind of making vague threat towards family members or their own personal safety. The other techniques I’ve talked about, a lot of them are largely kind of threats, but you can use a lot of honey, too.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Stephanie Carvin: So you can try to basically flatter someone into thinking that they think that you’re really interesting or doing good work. You can financially compensate them in certain ways. Canada has very important and strict election financing laws, and in fact, recently those laws have been tightened. But there may be other ways of getting around it through presents, through gifts, through luxury, holiday vacations. All these kinds of things are other ways you can try and compensate people, which may not actually show up as, say, a campaign donation. And then people may also try to exploit ties to the country.
I think this is a very sensitive issue. So we have to be really careful here. But there are a lot of networks of communities online. They talk to each other, share information, things like this. Foreign actors may try to target those groups say on WhatsApp, these large chats where they can try and put information in those chats, and they spread around and things like this. So either trying to use community organizations, online private WhatsApp groups, things like this can be used to try and influence the way different communities in Canada vote.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So when I kind of called these techniques old school, I was mostly joking. But how long has this kind of interference been around? And how has it changed in recent years? Again, leaving aside the disinformation and bots, and because I do want to talk to you about those separately in a moment.
Stephanie Carvin: So, Yeah, this is just that a lot of this has existed, really, since the Cold War, and we can even go back to the famous Gazenko case. It was a Russian official in the Soviet Embassy, and he basically defected to Canada and brought with him troves of information about Soviet activities in not just Canada, but the West at large. And it was found that a lot of these activities actually were clandestine for influence activities. So, for example, trying to get MPs that were also clandestine agents into Parliament, a couple MPs got caught up in that particular scandal, the fact that they were trying to recruit individuals within the various Communist movements. So I think you’re right. This is nothing new. And a lot of the campaigns that we see today, whether it is actually just trying to promote those narratives that are seen as convenient to particular foreign States, or trying to suppress those with which aren’t a lot of this, particularly when we’re speaking about the in-person space, is not new.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So why is it increasing now, then? Does it have anything to do with the fact that our attention has been so preoccupied with online disinformation and that kind of interference?
Stephanie Carvin: That’s a really good question. I think it’s a number of things. First of all, technology has just simply made this easier. Even if we are talking about the old school techniques, I think the ability to reach out to people, to set up meetings, to transfer funds, to speak to different audiences has just become so much easier in recent years. That’s probably one of the reasons. The second reason is it’s really easy to do. It’s not that expensive, but you’re probably using Embassy officials that are already here. Or you may be using people that your government has already been in touch with that are on the ground, and those people may already have networks that can be exploited. So a lot of this infrastructure is already in place to be there, or if you need to even set it up, it’s not that expensive. So it’s a really interesting way to try and impact kind of the core, the soul of our democracies, which is, of course, our electoral processes. And even if you’re not that successful, you can still have a certain degree of disruption. And certainly this is something that we have been having to pay attention to in really the last 5-6-7 years because of the scale of the activities that we’ve really been seeing from a few countries.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, since you said a few countries, I have to ask you the million dollar question, who’s doing this? And what are they after? Because I’m also curious about the goals versus chaos question, like sow doubt in our electoral process and make it really difficult for Canadians and et cetera, et cetera. Or do they have strict policy goals that they’re after?
Stephanie Carvin: So that’s interesting. The CSIS report actually does not name and shame, but an earlier report, which was released the previous week, I already mentioned it, the one from the Canadian Security Establishment. That report identified three main actors. The first is Russia, maybe no surprise there, China, and Iran. But we have seen other reports in the past that have been put out through various news organizations that suggest there’s actually far more actors that are engaged in this space, such as Venezuela, India, other countries like this that may have some interest. Of course, we’ve seen Saudi bots attack Canada for other purposes, so they may be there as well. They’re not named in this particular report, but we do know from access to information requests that those countries and some of their online activities are of concern as well. But the three countries, Russia, China, and then Iran, are assessed as being responsible for 90% of the activities that are out there online right now.
As for what their goals are, I mean, what’s interesting about the two reports, they actually break it down a little bit that there’s like, short term goals, medium goals, and long term goals. So the short term goals are things like trying to affect turnout, trying to maybe attack the legitimate of a particular candidate or a political party or a party leader. So those are kind of have an immediate effect, right. But there’s longer term goals here as well. And these, I think, really do suit the strategic interests of more authoritarian state.
So in the medium term, you’re really talking about a poisoning of the political discourse, just really making it unpleasant to talk about anything political, either online or perhaps even just with your neighbours, because the climate and the rhetoric is just so heated. But in the long term, we do worry about the impact of a loss of confidence in democracies, or if there’s just so much heated political rhetoric, does that actually stop things from happening politically or impact the way things can be governed? And I don’t want to poke too many fingers at the United States, because I don’t think they’re the only country affected by this. But we’re seeing this heated political discourse and where it’s leading. And we see the political troubles in the United States right now. And you have to wonder, to the extent that, you know, heated political discourse, I don’t want to say it’s all foreign interference, but the extent to which domestic actors have certainly latched on to certain narratives, and the extent to which foreign actors have been definitely trying to promote those narratives, I think, is probably having an impact.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Would average Canadians even come into contact with the kind of in person tactics, or would that just be something happening behind the scenes that they would see in the actions of candidates or parties?
Stephanie Carvin: So that’s a really great question. And the answer is, we don’t really know the extent to which these activities in person are taking place. I mean, this gets to the heart of the issue. It’s clandestine, right? So the whole point is that you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s there. That is a huge concern. The other huge concern here, and there are hints of this in the CSE report, which is that, you know, as artificial intelligence is getting smarter and as technology is developing, there’s concern that it may not be humans doing this activity very soon, that already artificial intelligence can generate what’s called deep fakes. And deep fakes are basically artificial messages and images and videos and text that can fool humans. Now, most of us can probably identify a deep fake video, but, for example, it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. And the CSE assesses that humans already can be tricked by artificially generated text. So if you think about the implications of that, you always say, never read the comments section. But the fact is that maybe we’re going to start seeing artificial bots and programs that are actually targeting the comment section, social media, Facebook, and it’s going to be harder and harder to detect this, and humans are going to find it harder and harder to actually know whether or not it’s real or fake. And I think Canadians are going to be challenged by this maybe not in this election if it happens this year, which by all accounts, it will. But in future elections, probably even maybe this decade.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s fascinating, because I hadn’t thought about, I hadn’t thought about the use of AI in this kind of stuff, which I guess is silly on my part. But what I was going to ask you is to your point about what’s going on in the United States, how at this point can we even tell you or me, or even CSIS tell what is active foreign disinformation from what is just regular, increasingly difficult political polarization, because they can seem the same on social media.
Stephanie Carvin: So there are certain patterns of behaviour that can’t identify whether or not a botnet is actually in place. And so, for example, you can see who’s actually doing the tweeting who’s doing the retweeting. Are they tweeting at a very fast pace? Are they tweeting a very identical or similar statements, these are kind of tell tale signs that you’re maybe dealing with an artificially generated network, or at least a network that was put together by someone that’s trying to amplify certain narratives or possibly even trying to suppress other ones.
In social media, we see Facebook, we see Twitter every couple of months or so, they issue a report saying, Oh, we found Country X was engaged in trying to put out information about this particular issue. Actually, just this week, we saw Twitter take down a network of bots that was basically tweeting misinformation about the situation in Tunisia. There was a very advanced network, which, to the human eye, wouldn’t necessarily show up as ‘this is an artificially generated message that’s being sent my way’. It looks pretty real. It was only when one of a researcher out there actually delved into the actual way the tweets were spreading and how they were being spread that actually it became apparent. But you needed actually a fairly sophisticated algorithm to see that. So it’s becoming harder. States are getting much better at this. At one time, you can easily recognize a bot because it was usually a pretty woman, often wearing a MAGA hat.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Stephanie Carvin: They had very similar bios on Twitter. And today’s bots are different. Countries have been experimenting, and they’ve learned, and it’s not just Russia anymore. It’s a larger number of actors. And so the key is what they call social engineering. It’s the ability to try and create an affinity, which is of interest. So maybe I put in my Twitter bio that I’m really into country music, and I’m really into pickup trucks. I don’t want a stereotype, of course, but I’m really into Making Canada Great Again, all those kind of hashtags that you see out there, and they say, Oh, look, this is someone who likes pickup trucks. I like pickup trucks, too. I’m going to like this person. I’m going to follow this person. And when you can kind of create that affinity, that level of trust, it becomes easier to kind of come into your information space and try and have influence on you as a person. So I think a lot of it’s also just kind of trying to be careful with who you’re retweeting and who you’re following. And is the person behind the account actually who you think it is.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So let me ask you then, as this stuff gets more complex and more and more countries get into it, how vulnerable are we as a nation or as a democracy compared to other Nations around the world? Are we pretty well protected? Have we been – I know there’s a lot of places where we tend to let infrastructure slack in this country, for instance, should we be worried?
Stephanie Carvin: Yeah. I think what’s interesting is that basically the reports, they basically say, Yes, Canada is affected by these trends. CSIS says it’s increasing, which is again, very significant. But at the same time, we are not the primary target for this. The CSE report, for example, is very clear that the number one target is the United States, the EU, and Ukraine for these activities, right. That’s where the vast majority of this activity is actually generated. But Canada is influenced by this. We can be affected by the fallout. So, for example, the CSC report quotes Taylor Owen. He did a really interesting study which shows Canadians tend to retweet Americans 10 times more than they do Canadian tweets, right. So for every time I retweet a Canadian, I’ve probably retweeted an American 10 times.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Interesting.
Stephanie Carvin: And that has a huge impact on our National discourse, right. So when you see these things that are out there, I think it really does have an interesting impact on how we perceive information, on how we think about the election issues and maybe why we are still thinking in terms of 2016, when we’re thinking of how foreign influence activities affect us or may affect our upcoming election. The second thing that is kind of related to this, and we do see it again in more of the CSE report, but also the CSIS report, to a certain extent, is the extent to which an election legitimacy itself is being targeted. It’s very clear to me that there is growing concern about what’s being called ‘The Big Lie’ in the United States. The idea that Trump won the election, it was stolen, is having an impact on Canadians as well.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Stephanie Carvin: And that we’re seeing in certain discourses about mail-in ballots, about ballot counting, the use of technology, all these kinds of things. I mean, this is seeping into certain fringe discussions about the election as well, and it will be interesting to see if those kinds of narratives do have an impact on the day we actually count the ballots. So I think that’s a great concern, and it really does show how discourses which are from or aimed at a different country can as well have an impact here. If there is good news here is that the Canadian government has been taking this issue seriously, especially since 2016, where there was concern that we would see the kind of US election style interference here in Canada. That hasn’t happened yet, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared. And so there’s been a number of things. One is actually just having this conversation about the reports that were put out, right.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Stephanie Carvin: What you’re trying to do is just prime the population that, Hey, these things could happen, and you need to be on the look out for misinformation, disinformation, and meddling. And if there is a serious cyber incident, don’t be that surprised, because we have seen this in other democracies as well. We also have a number of bodies that have been put in place that if there is an incident which is deemed to be of enough gravity to actually impact the election. There is a number of security officials comprised of CSIS, CSE, RCMP, and Cyber Center and things like this. They’ll come out and actually issue a statement if they think that Canadians need to know that something has actually happened. Now, that infrastructure trying to protect the elections was in place for the last election in 2019, but no incident actually amounted to a serious enough threat that they felt that they had to come forward and warn the public.
Now, that being said, I don’t actually think we’ve ever had a real accounting of what happened in the last election. And even if there were attempts that were pretty minimal in nature, I think we should know what those were, because it’d be interesting, just from an academic perspective, to know, how are these threats particularly changing? How are they countered successfully, if at all? And so there’s a lot of unanswered questions still that I would like to know, but Canada probably does actually lead the world in terms of having put in place a system of alarm bells that can be gradually rung up if we need to.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s really comforting. And it leads me right to my next question, which is what keeps you up at night, then? What keeps people in the intelligence community in Canada at night?
Stephanie Carvin: So I can’t really speak for the community. But I know myself, one of the things I worry about was not really covered in either report, which is the idea that you could have a serious incident which is not necessarily targeting the election per se, but would still have an impact. So, for example, you could have a large cyber attack on our critical infrastructure the day of an election, something that took out the electricity, or something like a large distributed denial of service or DDoS attack, which kind of hammered a lot of key servers or domain name registry services, which would basically stop Canadians from accessing the Internet on a day when they probably need it to find their polling station, to figure out who their candidates are, who they’re voting for. These kinds of things could really cause a lot of chaos. The mandate of these particular reports was really only to talk about threats to the election, but I kind of worry about things that could be much broader in scope with a purpose of trying to just kind of cause chaos on election day that would really impact our ability to vote, would impact our ability to know the results, and could really cast serious doubt on the electoral system. I didn’t see that reflected in any of these reports. Maybe they don’t want to give foreign governments any ideas, but I think that could be something that would be kind of a worst case scenario, but that’s kind of what I worry about.
I also worry about something that I mentioned earlier, which is the deep fake issue, the fact that technology is getting to the point where we can no longer determine what is real, what is fake. And I think that in a few years time, if you could see video of a leading candidate, for example, saying something deeply offensive or something ridiculous that really kind of got amplified on social media, and you couldn’t tell if it was real or fake, say really close to an election date. And you have journalists running around trying to figure out this is something that happened, did it not happen? That could have a huge impact as well. So there’s a lot of nightmare fuel in all of this. And, Yeah, I think this is going to be an issue that we’re going to be talking about for sometime.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, at least we’re preparing for it. Thank you so much, Stephanie.
Stephanie Carvin: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephanie Carvin of Carlton University. Her new book is called ‘Stand on Guard, Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security’. That was The Big Story. For more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, sometimes lower case, doesn’t matter, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And we’re in every podcast player that you could hope for. Give us a like, give us a follow, give us a rate, and give us a review, whatever you want to do. But if you really like the podcast, tell your friends and family, that’s what we go for.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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