Thank you very much for the invitation to address the committee today. I know all of you have a copy of my remarks. I will be giving a slightly shorter version, but you have all of that information.
It is my pleasure to appear and to use the opportunity to outline the government's plan to safeguard the 2019 federal election.
I'm pleased to be joined by officials today who will speak about the technical aspects of our plan. These officials are Allen Sutherland, Assistant Secretary to Cabinet, Machinery of Government and Democratic Institutions at the Privy Council; Daniel Rogers, Deputy Chief of SIGNIT at the Communications Security Establishment; and André Boucher, Assistant Deputy Minister of Operations at the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.
Elections are an opportunity for Canadians to be heard. They can express concerns and opinions through one of the most fundamental rights, which is the right to vote. The next opportunity for Canadians to exercise this right is coming this fall, with Canada's 43rd general election in October.
As we have seen over the past few years, democracies around the world have entered a new era, an era of heightened and dynamic threat that necessitates intensified vigilance by governments, but also by all members of society.
Each election plays out in a unique context. This election will be no different. While evidence has confirmed that the 2015 federal election didn't involve any incidents of sophisticated or concerted interference, we can't predict what will happen this fall. However, we can prepare for any possibility.
Earlier this week, along with my colleague, the Minister of National Defence, I announced the release of the 2019 update to the Communications Security Establishment’s report entitled “Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process”. This updated report highlights that it is very likely Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference in the course of the 2019 federal election.
While CSE underlines that it is unlikely this interference will be on the scale of the Russian activity in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the report notes that in 2018, half of all the advanced democracies holding national elections, representing a threefold increase since 2015, had their democratic process targeted by cyber-threat activity and that Canada is also at risk. This upward trend is likely to continue in 2019.
We've seen that certain tools used to strengthen civic engagement have been co-opted to undermine, disrupt and destabilize democracy. Social media has been misused to spread false or misleading information. In recent years, we've seen foreign actors try to undermine democratic societies and institutions, electoral processes, sovereignty and security.
The CSE's 2017 and 2019 assessments, along with ongoing Canadian intelligence and the experiences of our allies and like-minded countries, have informed and guided our efforts over the past year. This has led to the development of an action plan based on four pillars, engaging all aspects of Canadian society.
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 will highlight some of the most significant initiatives of our plan.
On January 30, I announced the digital citizen initiative and a $7 million investment towards improving the resilience of Canadians against online disinformation. In response to the increase in false, misleading and inflammatory information published online and through social media, the Government of Canada has made it a priority to help equip citizens with the tools and skills needed to critically assess online information.
We're also leveraging the “Get Cyber Safe” national public awareness campaign to educate Canadians about cyber security 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 non-partisan process for informing Canadians if serious incidents during the writ period threaten the integrity of the 2019 general election. This protocol puts the decision to inform Canadians directly in the hands of five of Canada’s most experienced senior public servants, who have a responsibility to ensure the effective, peaceful transition of power and continuity of government through election periods. The public service has effectively played this role for generations and it will continue to fulfill this important role through the upcoming election and beyond.
This protocol will be initiated only to respond to incidents that occur within the writ period and that don't fall within Elections Canada's area of responsibility for the administration of the election.
The threshold for the panel in charge of informing the public will be very high and will be limited to addressing exceptional circumstances that could impair our ability to hold a free and fair election. The panel is expected to come to a decision jointly, based on consensus. It won't be one person deciding what Canadians should know.
I'm thankful that the political parties consulted on the development of this protocol set aside partisanship in the interest of all Canadians. The incorporation of input from all parties has allowed for a fair process that Canadians can trust.
Under the second pillar, improving organizational readiness, one key new initiative is to ensure that political parties are all aware of the nature of the threat, so that they can take the steps needed to enhance their internal security practices and behaviours. The CSE’s 2017 report, as well as its 2019 update, highlight that political parties continue to represent one of the greatest vulnerabilities in the Canadian system. Canada’s national security agencies will offer threat briefings to political party leadership, to ensure that they are able to play their part in securing our elections.
Under the third pillar—combatting foreign interference—the government has established the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force to improve awareness of foreign threats and support incident assessment and response. The team brings together CSE, CSIS, the RCMP, and Global Affairs Canada to ensure a comprehensive understanding of and response to any threats to Canada. The task force has established a baseline of threat awareness, and has been meeting with international partners to make sure that Canada can effectively assess and mitigate any malicious interference activity.
The fourth pillar is with respect to social media platforms.
The transformation of Canada's media landscape affects the whole of society in tangible and pervasive ways. 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 tension. I have been meeting with social media and digital platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft, to secure action to increase transparency, improve authenticity and ensure greater integrity on their platforms. Although discussions are progressing slowly, and have not yet yielded the results we expected at this stage, we remain steadfast in our commitment to secure change from them.
Our government has prioritized the protection of Canada's democratic processes and institutions. As a result, we've committed significant new funding towards these efforts. Budget 2019 included an additional $48 million in support of the whole-of-government efforts.
This comprehensive plan is also bolstered by recent legislative efforts. I’d like to also highlight the important advances we’ve made to modernize Canada’s electoral system, making it more accessible, transparent and secure.
Bill C-76 takes important steps to counter foreign interference and the threats posed by emerging technologies.
The provisions in this bill, which this committee obviously knows well, are: 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 election advertisements from foreign entities; and, 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 period.
Canada has a robust and world-renowned elections administration body in Elections Canada.
While it is impossible to fully predict what kinds of threats 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 we will continue to take whatever steps we can towards ensuring a free, fair and secure election in 2019.
I'll be pleased to answer your questions either now or after the vote.