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Canada’s spy agency is sounding the alarm over state-sponsored espionage

It’s the first time since 2001 that CSIS has declared espionage and foreign interference greater threats than terrorism when it comes to the economy.

by Rachel Browne and Steven Zhou
Dec 5 2018, 3:49pm

Foreign interference and espionage are the top threats to the Canadian economy, warned the director of Canada’s spy agency at a gathering of business leaders in Toronto on Tuesday. It’s the first time since 2001 that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has declared these threats to be higher than terrorism when it comes to national interests.

National security experts were struck by the announcement and said it points to a shift in priorities for CSIS ahead of the 2019 federal election.

“I will talk about terrorism and how it remains the number one national security-related danger to public safety in this country,” CSIS Director David Vigneault said in a speech at the Economic Club in Toronto. “But I also want to talk to you – the key leaders in Canada’s business community – about what I consider to be the greatest threat to our prosperity and national interest, namely: foreign interference and espionage.”

In his first public speech since becoming director of CSIS in 2017, Vigneault noted that while terrorism has “understandably occupied a significant portion of our collective attention for almost two decades,” other national security threats including cyber threats, foreign interference, and espionage pose “greater strategic challenges and must also be addressed.”

"Plainly said, there is state-sponsored espionage in Canada,” Vigneault continued.

Specially, he cautioned that hostile states have their sights on big corporations and universities as potentially vulnerable to infiltration and economic espionage. His comments come amid U.S. efforts to steer Canada and other allies away from entering telecommunication deals with Chinese giant Huawei Technologies Co. over spying concerns. Canada is currently conducting a review of Huawei technology, whereas the the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia recently barred it.

“Traditional interference by foreign spies remains the greatest danger, but interference using cyber means is a growing concern,” added Vigneault. “As members of the business community, you know that digital media can be used to share ideas and bring people together. But it can also be used to coordinate attacks on our society and values.”

Kara Merpaw, a spokesperson for the Economic Club of Canada, told VICE News in an email the organization approached CSIS to give a speech there.

“From what we saw at the event, the speech generated a lot of conversation about data breaches that can happen here in Canada and that companies with overseas operations could be at risk of,” wrote Merpaw.

Vigneault’s speech surprised Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. However, she welcomed the updated threat assessment and noted the importance of it being announced in front of the business community, as the two circles do not usually come together in public this way.

“CSIS directors often don’t speak in front of businessmen and tell them they have a role in national security,” Carvin told VICE News. “His mandate has largely centred around making CSIS more relevant to Ottawa, but the speech shows that he also wants to make the CSIS assessments more relevant to business.”

Security expert Mubin Shaikh, who had just finished speaking at conference in Washington D.C. on espionage, wasn’t as surprised by the announcement.

“The sheer amount of money that Canadian industry has lost through espionage is indicative of how bad the current situation is,” said Shaikh, who worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to infiltrate the so-called Toronto-18 terrorist cell in 2005. “It’s not terrorism doing all that — it’s the Russians and the Chinese. There’s billions of dollars that are outright stolen from Canadian industry through cyber operations, along with a lot of intelligence and know-how around Canadian tech.”

“Agriculture is a good example of this because it involves a lot of technology ... and other countries love to get their hands on that,” he said. “Espionage isn’t just about infiltrating and influencing government officials, but also industry and corporate officials, even stealing stuff from their personal computers, for example.”

In October, the Trudeau Liberals supported amendments to legislation that seeks to deter foreign interference in Canadian federal elections, including a blanket ban on foreign funds for any political candidate or party. Other amendments include requiring companies like Google and Facebook to register all ads by political parties.

Cover image of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service headquarters in Ottawa. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.