CYBER SPIES: WHAT IS CSE AND HOW DO THEY KEEP CANADIANS SAFE

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     I. Canada’s Cyber Defense Agency

In 2019, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (“CSE” hereinafter), was conferred exceptional powers by the Canadian government. They were armed with new offensive powers, allowing them to use cyber operations to defend Canadian interests and disrupt foreign threats preemptively.

     II. What is CSE’s mandate?

CSE’s mandate is outlined in the CSE Act. There are four parts:

  1. Cyber security
  2. Signals intelligence
  3. Defensive and active cyber operations
  4. Technical and operational assistance to federal partners.

CSE is prohibited by law from targeting the communications of Canadians anywhere in the world or those of anybody currently in Canada. CSE is also subject to all other Canadian law, including notably, the Criminal Code, the Privacy Act and, most importantly, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Operations under the CSE, defensive or otherwise, must be authorized by the Minister of National Defense, and must be reasonable, proportionate, and not able to be reasonably achieved by any other means. Offensive activities must be consented to by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, whereas defensive operations only require a consultation with the Minister.

Regardless of whether they are offensive or defensive maneuvers, no actions taken by the CSE may cause death or bodily harm, nor interfere with the course of justice or democracy.

      III. Some examples of CSE’s impact

Here are some of the most interesting examples of CSE’s operations, as disclosed in their most recent report.

The Invasion of Ukraine:

Russian cyber threats increased in the weeks leading up to and culminated in the invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine in February 2022. The Cyber Centre, an arm of CSE, tracked threat activity to Canada from around the world. They also supported Canada’s response to the invasion of Ukraine by providing foreign signals intelligence reporting as well as technical and operational assistance to the Canadian Armed Forces Mission.

CSE also tracked Russian-backed disinformation campaigns related to the ongoing war in Ukraine, notably with respect to disinformation about NATO allies, false stories about Canadian forces committing war crimes and false narratives suggesting that only military targets were being attacked by Russian forces.

The 2021 Federal Election:

CSE was active during the September 2021 Federal election. While Canada is perhaps a relatively lower-priority target as compared to other countries, it was still very likely that Canadian voters could encounter some form of cyber interference. CSE actively monitored those threats and provided intelligence on the intentions, activities and capabilities of foreign threat actors. CSE also had cyber operations in place, to disrupt malicious cyber incursions into the Elections Canada infrastructure, if needed.

The Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout

Cyber threats against the healthcare sector in Canada increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic and during this time, the Cyber Centre assisted over 100 new health organizations, providing cyber security services and virtual briefings to the health community which were well attended.

In March 2021, the Cyber Centre began an urgent program to boost the security of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. The program was entitled Canadian Armour and was open to any of the Canadian organizations involved in the development and delivery of the Covid-19 vaccines.

      IV. The risk to your business and how CSE can help you

The Cyber Center reporting portal, My Cyber Portal was launched in May 2021. This portal allows Canadians to report an incident, helping the Canadian Government obtain a more accurate snapshot of the cyber security issues facing Canadians and allowing individuals and businesses to reach out to the right partner for help, depending on the incident type.

In the fall of 2021, the Cyber Center investigated whether small and medium size organizations had been targeted by various cyber security threats. The results were startling:

  • Over 61% of businesses had experienced a cyber security threat;
  • Only 25% of those having experienced a cyber security incident reported it to law enforcement;
  • Over 85% of small and medium businesses were not aware that cyber security support was available to small and medium organizations;
  • More than 50% of businesses did not know where to report a cyber crime, when one had occurred.

The Cyber Centre provides training to improve the cyber security of small and medium organizations in collaboration with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.  The eLearning series, CyberSecure Canada,  is available for free at: https://learning‑apprentissage.ised-isde.canada.ca/course/index.php?categoryid=52.

If your company would like more information on implementing cyber security practices for your business, or if they are a victim of a cyber threat or a cyber attack, please reach out us so that we can put our expertise to work for you.

By Alexandra Kallos