TORONTO — A new law enacted in time for the election gives security agencies and the Chief Electoral Officer significant new powers to fight back against cyber attacks on critical election infrastructure.
In an interview conducted with the podcast “Attention Control” just before the election began, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault confirmed for the first time that no cyberattacks have been detected.
“There has been no attempt to do that. No.” he told me.
A spokesperson for Elections Canada confirms that is still true, one week after the election began.
That same law, however, does not compel the political parties to report cyber incursions, and prevents the Canadian Security Establishment from using its abilities to protect the databases of the parties. The Liberals and Conservatives tell “Attention Control” they don’t discuss their security precautions but they, like all parties, have posted to their websites assurances they take the security of their databases seriously. Without any oversight, there is no way to independently confirm what they claim.
In recent elections in other countries, campaign and party data have been compromised most often. Reuters reports Australia’s cyber-intelligence agency concluded China was behind cyber hacks in May, which obtained private data from the three main political parties in the months leading up to the Australian election.
The party of France’s President Emmanuel Macron also reported being hacked on election day, and in the U.S., Robert Mueller concluded Russia hacked the personal emails of members of the Democratic National Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Perrault noted in the exclusive interview with “Attention Control” that Canada’s parties have been briefed by cyber-intelligence experts on how to harden their cyber defences in the months leading up to the election.
Elections Canada guidelines suggest the parties voluntarily report any incidents. When I asked whether the parties “have or have not” agreed to that suggestion, Perrault said: “We haven’t added that comment”, adding, “I would be lying if I had no concern because I have been raising this issue with them. What I can say is that they’ve been made aware they understand the challenges, they’ve seen what’s happened elsewhere.”
Ben Scott, who advised the Clinton campaign during 2016 on digital policy issues, told “Attention Control” that political party data is among the top targets for cyber hacking.
“If that data were hacked and revealed that’s an extraordinary violation of privacy for anybody who sits in that database” he said. “ So I think there are rights that need to be protected there for the citizens.”
Political parties also do not have to adhere to many of the privacy laws in Canada, including a requirement to report if there was a serious breach of personal data.
“Attention Control with Kevin Newman” is a new podcast from Antica Productions, and will be investigating the intersection of data, technology, and democracy during the federal election campaign. Every week during the campaign, the show will bring listeners data-driven investigations that will help separate fact from fiction, as well as timely, in-depth interviews with insiders from the tech industry and their critics.