OTTAWA—Canada is finally breaking its silence on China’s cyber espionage, something the US and other government have done, but until now, not Canada.
A cyber attack on the National Research Council—Canada’s largest research and development organization—had to shut down its computer systems and start rebuilding its networks after a month of attacks. On Tuesday, the government’s statement attributed the attacks to “a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor”.
The accusation brought a sharp rebuke from China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Qing Gang who said in a statement that the Chinese regime opposed “criminal activities of all forms aimed at sabotaging the Internet and computer networks.”
“It is irresponsible for the Canadian side to make groundless accusations against China when there is no credible evidence,” the statement read.
It is unclear how China’s Foreign Ministry knows what evidence is available given it is protocol for Canada’s intelligence entities to keep counter-espionage techniques secret.
China’s Foreign Ministry demanded Canada retract the accusation, calling it “groundless”.
Canada’s History of Silence
Previous cyber attacks were attributed to China, but only by a few media citing unnamed government sources. The government has never officially attributed an attack to a Chinese state actor before, though the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) has identified the Chinese regime as a primary concern for espionage activities.
In 2010 the previous head of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Richard Fadden, attracted controversy for speaking publicly about the efforts of foreign governments to unduly influence Canadian elected officials. He identified China as being the most aggressive of those countries.
In an interview with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) he said, “It most definitely is a serious problem, and if I had to guess, I’d say it was going to get worse.”
A few weeks later, Fadden was criticized for the comments but Canadian officials were reluctant to look into the substance of his remarks.
Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who was prepared to raise the issue at a parliamentary hearing, was silenced by the leader of his own party by then Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff was in China at the time.
Wrzesnewskyj knew he would be in trouble with his party for raising the issue, but thought he had finally had a chance to put it on the political agenda.
“It’s almost like a chess game. I thought I had it figured out how to bring critically important documentation to the public through the processes of parliamentary committee,” he said in a 2011 interview with Epoch Times.
Another well-placed source tells Epoch Times that changes to Canada’s Security of Information Act make it harder for former public servants with direct knowledge of the issue to speak about it at all.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, was in China at the time the attack was announced. He reportedly raised the issue with the Chinese regime but public statements from his department during the visit focused on Canada’s efforts to deepen trade with China.