Canada’s defence minister touts new offensive cyberwar powers

Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has reaffirmed his support for the new offensive cyberwar capabilities that are to be granted the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)—Canada’s signals intelligence agency and close partner of the US National Security Agency (NSA)—under the Liberal government’s Bill C-59.

The Liberals have promoted Bill C-59 as a corrective to Bill C-51, the draconian legislation that the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper passed in 2015, with Liberal support, under the guise of fighting “terrorism.”

The “reforms” in Bill C-59 will leave most of the sweeping powers granted the security agencies under Bill C-51intact. Canada’s premier domestic security agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, will retain the power to break virtually any law in actively “disrupting” threats to national security. In some respects, especially cyber war, Bill C-59 goes beyond Bill C-51.

Claiming that the new powers were “just about us evolving to the various threats,” Sajjan declared last month, “We will always reserve the right to be able to defend our soldiers regardless what type of (tactics are) being used against them.”

The attempt to portray the CSE’s new cyberwar powers in “defensive” terms is a flat out lie. For the first time in CSE’s history, the highly secretive agency will be legally authorized and given the capabilities to launch offensive cyber-attacks on foreign targets, including individuals, state organizations, and alleged terrorist groups deemed a threat to “national security.” CSE’s function was in the past limited—at least officially—to intelligence gathering, defending government networks, and assisting CSIS, the RCMP and other domestic security agencies.

Under Bills C-51 and C-59, CSE is also empowered to lend support to CSIS in exercising its powers to disrupt internal threats to national security, including presumably through cyberwar tactics.

Researchers from the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab and the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) made a detailed analysis of Bill C-59 that shed light on its anti-democratic character. They noted that CSE’s cyber-attacks and espionage campaigns have “the potential to seriously interfere with Charter-protected rights and freedoms.”

The report states: “From mass dissemination of false information, to impersonation, leaking foreign documents in order to influence political and legal outcomes, disabling account or network access, large-scale denial of service attacks, and interference with the electricity grid, the possibilities for the types of activities contemplated in (Bill C-59) are limited only by the imagination.”

CitizenLab also points to a “loophole” contained in the new CSE Act that would allow the agency in its overseas operations to “cause death or bodily harm,” and to interfere with the “course of justice or democracy.”

The new powers granted to the intelligence agencies under Bill C-59 flows from the ruling elite’s recognition that control over cyberspace is essential for waging war and suppressing social opposition at home.

Since coming to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have expanded Canadian imperialism’s involvement in all of Washington’s wars and military-strategic offensives around the world, including by deploying hundreds of troops to Eastern Europe as part of NATO’s aggressive encirclement of Russia, and participating in provocative military exercises in the Asia-Pacific aimed at China.

Since the emergence of the hysterical campaign led by the US Democratic Party over unsubstantiated claims of Russian “meddling” in the 2016 US elections, governments around the world have used this pretext to augment the powers of their intelligence agencies. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, an anti-Russia hawk, warned last March that Canada should be prepared for Russian hacking in the next Canadian federal election, even though CSE reported last June that it had never detected any attempt by a foreign power to interfere in a Canadian election.

The head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, attended the Security Forum in Halifax last November where he encouraged all of its members to beef up their cybersecurity protocols and to share “best practices.” Stoltenberg accused Russia of waging a digital disinformation campaign against the Canadian soldiers deployed to Latvia as part of NATO’s military buildup against Russia in Eastern Europe. Without providing any details, he said social media have been spreading false or misleading stories accusing Canadian soldiers of bad behaviour or living at Latvia’s expense.

The Trudeau government and its NATO allies invoke the Russian bogeyman the better to prepare their own aggression.

As Christopher Parsons, a researcher with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab observed, the CSE’s new mandate will “normalize” Canadian state-sponsored hacking and disinformation operations, exactly what Canada regularly accuses Russia of doing.

While the Liberals have tried to cloak Bill C-59 in progressive garb with the creation of a new “super watch-dog” committee to oversee the activities of CSE and CSIS, the CitizenLab researchers note that, in reality, cyber-attacks will be waged with “a complete lack of meaningful” oversight. Cyber war operations will require sign-off from the minister of national defence and the minister of foreign affairs, but not approval by the proposed new independent Intelligence Commissioner and will remain permanently secret.

Armed with new offensive capacities, CSE will seek to integrate itself more deeply with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to play a greater role in imperialist war abroad. The Liberals’ new defence policy made public last June, which announced a 70 percent increase in military spending over the next decade, called for the creation of a new job category of “cyber operator” to “increase the number of military personnel dedicated to cyberwar functions.”

CSE has been collaborating for years with the military. In 2016, CSE spokesman Ryan Foreman admitted that the agency was assisting the CAF under the umbrella of Operation Impact, the name of Canada's mission in support of the US-led military intervention in the Middle East. CSE also played a key role during the Afghan war, providing the Canadian military with half of the battlefield intelligence it used to track and monitor Taliban militants and commanders.

Just like CSE’s foreign activities, its domestic operations are largely unknown to ordinary people because the intelligence agencies are legally entitled to safeguard the “covert nature” of their operations in the name of national security.

Government officials have long sought to conceal the fact that CSE is spying on Canadians by asserting that the agency is only concerned with “foreign threats,” even though it is officially mandated to support CSIS, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other police agencies in countering “domestic subversion.”

But in 2013, thanks in part to revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, it became public knowledge that CSE has been systematically mining the metadata generated by Canadians’ electronic communication since at least 2005. Through the analysis of metadata, the state can draw a detailed profile of an individual or an organization. This includes identifying daily patterns of behaviour, friends and associates, workplaces, and political opinions.

Moreover, as a member of the “Five Eyes” partnership, which in addition to the NSA includes the signals intelligence agencies of the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, CSE can use information gathered by its partners, who are under no legal obligation to disregard information that they obtain on Canadians.

The CitizenLab report also explains that an exception contained in Bill C-59 grants license to the CSE to collect “in bulk” information on Canadians published or available through social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter. That includes “facial imagery, posts, photographs, videos, relationships, public location data, behaviour patterns and more.”

Bill C-59 not only grants expansive new powers to CSE. It expands CSIS’ power to store and analyze electronic data and share it with other spy and police agencies.

The strengthening of the intelligence agencies’ authoritarian powers is bound up with the ruling elite’s turn to militarism and aggression abroad. These policies, which will be paid for by an intensification of the assault on the working class, are incompatible with any form of democratic rule. The increased repression makes clear that what the ruling elite fear above all else is the emergence of social opposition, including an anti-war movement in the working class, against its right-wing agenda of war, austerity and social reaction.