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CSIS director says Canada's spy laws are outdated

Cyber threat actors using pandemic to target vulnerable business sectors
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Canada’s spy chief says foreign governments and extremists have exploited COVID-19 to boost exploitation of cyber tools for data theft, conduct ransomware attacks, cause disruption and spread pandemic response disinformation.

And, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director David Vigneault warned Feb. 9, Canada’s CSIS Act is outdated and is more suited to the Cold War than to today’s high tech realities.

“It is no secret that we are most concerned about the actions by the governments of countries like Russia and China,” Vigneault said. “But we should also not discount that threat activity evolves and can originate from anywhere in the world.”

Canadian sectors most under threat from external threat actors, Vigneault said, are biopharma and health, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, ocean technology and aerospace, Vigneault said.

“The fluid and rapidly evolving environment created by COVID-19 has created a situation ripe for exploitation by threat actors seeking to cause harm or advance their own interests,” he said.

“With many Canadians working from home, threat actors are presented with even more opportunities to conduct malicious online activities,” Vigneault said.

He said many technologies in vulnerable sectors are in academic or small start-ups that could have lesser security awareness and protections in place than other organizations.

Vigneault called China an important global actor and important partner for Canada.

But, he added, “the government of China is pursuing a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts – economic, technological, political and military – and using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

Vigneault said the pandemic has accelerated hostile state actors’ use of state power to advance their national interests while national economies are shattered.

Historically, Vigneault said, spies were focused on obtaining Canadian political, military and diplomatic secrets.

“Today our adversaries are more focused on intellectual property and advanced research held on computer systems in small start-ups, corporate boardrooms or university labs across the country,” he said.

To get that information, he said, foreign agents will deploy highly creative and deceptive tradecraft to gain access to strategic and tactical-value data.

“These actors are able to leverage emerging technologies such as bulk data collection or AI-powered analytics to their advantage,” he said.

Moreover, he explained, social media has been leveraged to spread disinformation or run influence campaigns. That, he said, could influence Canadian public policy, public opinion and undermine democracy and democratic processes.

To meet such challenges, Vigneault said, Canada needs an updated CSIS Act to allow the agency to use modern tools and assess data and information.  

“We need laws that enable these types of data-driven investigations, carefully constructed to reflect the values we share in our democracy, including assurances of robust privacy protections,” Vigneault said. “Our act sets technological limitations on intelligence collection that were not foreseen by the drafters of the legislation in 1984 and unduly limit our investigations in a modern era.”


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