Thank you for the invitation to address the committee today. It is my pleasure to appear and to tell you more about the government's plan to safeguard the 2019 election.
I am pleased to be joined by officials today to speak to the technical aspects of Canada's plan. As the chair mentioned, this includes Allen Sutherland, assistant secretary to cabinet, machinery of government and democratic institutions; Daniel Rogers, deputy chief of SIGINT with the Communications Security Establishment; André Boucher, the assistant deputy minister of operations for the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security; and Ayesha Malette, senior adviser with the democratic institutions secretariat of PCO.
Before I start, I would like to express my gratitude to the members of the committee for their contribution over the past year to the study of disinformation. The information and views of the witnesses and members have provided valuable insight as we continue our efforts to safeguard the 2019 election.
Elections are an opportunity for Canadians to be heard, for them to express concerns and opinions through one of the most fundamental rights—the right to vote. However, this election will also experience an unprecedented amount of scrutiny.
As we have seen over the past few years, democracies around the world have entered a new era—an era of heightened threat and heightened vigilance—and 2019 will see a number of countries brace for volleys of attempted disruption: India, Australia, Ukraine, Switzerland, Belgium, the EU and, of course, Canada. Evidence has confirmed that the most recent Canadian general election, in 2015, was unencumbered by interference, although there were some relatively primitive attempts to disrupt, misinform and divide. These efforts were few in number and uncoordinated, and had no visible impact on the voter, either online or in line.
This election may be different. We've seen that the tools that were used to strengthen civic engagement are being used to undermine, disrupt and destabilize democracy.
We expect that some so-called “hacktivist” groups will use their cyber capabilities to try to influence our democratic process.
We could also face coordinated attempts at interference by foreign state actors, similar to what we have seen in other democracies over the last few years. This could include attempts to influence candidates or to manipulate social media to spread false or misleading information.
In recent years, we have witnessed foreign actors looking to undermine democratic societies and institutions, electoral processes, sovereignty and security. The malicious, multi-faceted and ever-evolving tactics constitute a serious strategic threat. We must be prepared for this. That is why in 2017 I asked Canada's Communications Security Establishment to analyze and make public an assessment of the current risk of cyber-threats and possible hacking of Canada's democratic processes. The report, “Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process”, was published as the world's first publicly shared threat assessment of its kind. It identified how key aspects of the democratic process, such as elections, political parties, politicians and media, are vulnerable to cyber-threat activity and influence operations.
This assessment, along with ongoing Canadian intelligence, and the experiences of allies and like-minded jurisdictions around the world have informed and guided our efforts over the past year, and led to the development of a plan of action based on four pillars.
We recognize that protecting Canada's democratic institutions requires a whole-of-society approach. Therefore, in addition to reinforcing and protecting government infrastructure, systems and practices, we are also focusing heavily on preparing Canadians and working with digital platforms that have an important role in fostering positive democratic debate and dialogue.
The four pillars of our plan are enhancing citizen preparedness, improving organizational readiness, combatting foreign interference and expecting social media platforms to act.
I'd like to take a few minutes to highlight some of the most significant initiatives of our plan.
Under the first pillar, enhancing citizen preparedness, we announced the digital citizen initiative. Our commitment includes an investment of $7 million towards improving the resilience of Canadians against online disinformation. We will leverage the expertise of civil society organizations that are directly working in communities on this issue.
We are increasing the reach and focus of the “get cyber safe” national public awareness campaign to educate Canadians about cybersecurity and the simple steps they can take to protect themselves online.
We have established the critical election incident public protocol. This is a simple, clear and impartial process for informing Canadians if serious incidents threaten the integrity of the 2019 general election.
The critical election incident public protocol panel is made up of five senior officials. It is expected to come to a decision jointly, based on consensus.
It is important to point out that this is the reason for a panel of five senior officials. It will not be one person deciding what Canadians should know.
The protocol will only be initiated to respond to incidents that occur within the writ period that do not fall within Elections Canada's area of responsibility.
The threshold for informing the public will be very high and limited to addressing exceptional circumstances that could impair our ability to have a free and fair election. As such, the threshold must extend beyond the normal negative rhetoric that is sometimes associated with political campaigns.
I am thankful that, in consulting with political parties on the development of this protocol, partisanship has been put aside in the interest of fairness. Incorporating input from all parties has allowed for a fair process that Canadians can trust.
Under the second pillar, improving organizational readiness, our national security and intelligence agencies are supporting Elections Canada by providing advice and guidance to improve its preparedness in the face of any potential interference in the administration of elections. The CSE is also offering ongoing cybersecurity technical advice and guidance to political parties.
The security agencies will offer threat briefings to key leadership and political parties, and security clearances are being arranged for senior members in each party to give them access to the right information to help them to strengthen internal security practices and behaviours.
Under the third pillar—combatting foreign influence—the government has established the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, or SITE, to improve awareness of foreign threats and support assessment and response. The team brings together the Communications Security Establishment, or CSE, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, as well as Global Affairs Canada, to ensure a comprehensive understanding of and response to any threats to Canada's democratic process.
Let me take a moment here to explain how the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol and the SITE Task Force are distinct yet related elements of our approach.
SITE ensures that the work of Canada's national security agencies is being done in a coordinated manner that aligns with the respective legal mandates of the agencies. Each of these agencies has their own practices for briefing up their internal organizational structures, including the heads of those agencies, as part of their regular operational practices. The Protocol will not change this.
The protocol will add a process for sharing relevant information with the panel of senior public service officials who will decide if incidents meet the threshold of interfering with Canada's ability to have a free and fair election.
When national security agency heads believe that some incident or incidents could potentially pose a threat to the integrity of Canada's upcoming federal election, they will coordinate with the national security and intelligence adviser to brief the panel accordingly, either through regular briefings or on an ad hoc basis, as is required.
We have activated the G7 rapid response mechanism, announced at the G7 leaders' summit in Charlevoix, to strengthen coordination among our G7 allies and to ensure that there is international collaboration and coordination in responding to foreign threats to democracy.
The fourth pillar is with respect to social media platforms.
I don't have to tell this committee that the face of mass media has turned from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg in a generation. It is a transformation for which the impact on society is impossible to overstate.
Social media and online platforms are the new arbiters of information and, therefore, have a responsibility to manage their communities. We know that they have also been manipulated to spread disinformation, create confusion and exploit societal tensions. The platforms have acknowledged the risk posed by misinformation and disinformation. I have been meeting with social media and digital platforms to secure action to increase transparency, improve authenticity and ensure greater transparency on their platforms.
Social media companies have reacted to the incidents of 2016 with some enhancements to their platforms. As a starting point, our government expects that those enhancements be made available to users in Canada as they have been made available to users in the U.S. and Europe.
This comprehensive plan is also bolstered by recent legislative efforts. Bill C-76, which received royal assent on December 13, 2018, takes important steps to counter foreign interference and the threats posed by emerging technologies.
Provisions in this bill include prohibiting foreign entities from spending any money to influence elections, where previously they were able to spend up to $500 unregulated; requiring organizations selling advertising space to not knowingly accept elections advertisements from foreign entities;
adding a prohibition regarding the “unauthorized use of computers” where there is intent to obstruct, interrupt or interfere with the lawful use of computer data during an election; and requiring online platforms to disclose the identity of advertisers by maintaining a publicly accessible registry of political ads published on the platform during the pre-election and the election.
It should be noted that Canada has a robust and highly respected elections administration body in Elections Canada. With the legislative, policy and programmatic efforts I have detailed for you today, Canada is in the best possible position to counter efforts to interfere in our democratic processes.
While it is impossible to fully predict what kinds of threats, if any, we will see in the run-up to Canada's general election, I want to assure this committee that Canada has put in place a solid plan. We continue to test and probe our readiness and will continue to take whatever steps we can toward ensuring a secure, free and fair election in 2019.
and I now welcome your questions.