The head of Canada’s spy agency said the greatest threat to Canada’s national security comes from China and Russia, while bemoaning the outdated legislation that is limiting the agency’s capabilities.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director David Vigneault also called for greater overall collaboration and awareness to deal with a higher threat level amid the pandemic, speaking at a webinar hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation on Feb. 9.
CSIS has previously warned about the theft of COVID-19 vaccine research and attempts by China and Russia to gain access themselves or recruit insiders and former employees to do so.
Regarding China, Vigneault made the distinction between the Chinese people and the ruling regime.
“To be clear, the threat does not come from the Chinese people, but rather from the government of China,” Vigneault said after lauding the contribution Chinese Canadians have made to Canada in a number of areas.
The Chinese Communist Party is “pursuing a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts—economic, technological, political, and military—and using all elements of state power to carry on activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty,” he said.
Vigneault provided the example of China’s Operation Fox Hunt, which threatens and intimidates Chinese diaspora to repatriate.
“Operation Fox Hunt … claims to target corruption, but it’s also believed to have been used to target and quiet dissidents to the regime,” he said.
Last October, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested five people in an alleged Operation Fox Hunt plot.
Vigneault also singled out globalization and rapid technological changes as factors that have created more opportunities for interference.
“Interference has always been present in Canada, but the scale, speed, range, and impact have grown as a result of globalization and technology,” he said.
Vigneault said the threats Canada now faces are vastly different from what was envisioned in the 1984 CSIS Act, which was better suited to the Cold War. The legislation “unduly limits our investigations in a modern era,” he said.
“The CSIS Act … greatly impedes our ability to use modern tools and assess data and information. We need laws that enable these types of data-driven investigations,” Vigneault said, adding that it “limits our ability to provide relevant advice to key partners.”
Though Vigneault did not refer to any case specifically, in July 2020, a Federal Court justice had denied a request by CSIS to gather foreign intelligence from a location inside Canada, on the grounds that the method proposed to do so was beyond CSIS’s legal mandate.
The court released a redacted version of the ruling in early February 2021. While the redactions prevent the proposed method of intel-gathering to be known, the document contains several sections that refer to the internet, including a heavily redacted section titled “the jurisprudence relating to information accessible through the internet” and two references referring to jurisprudence recognizing “the borderless nature of the internet.”
Vigneault went on to say that sectors that are particularly vulnerable to theft of intellectual property include biopharma, health, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence.
This is because these types of advanced technologies are largely developed by academia and small startups, which are attractive targets due to having less security and threat awareness in place, he added.
“[They are] more likely to pursue financial and collaboration opportunities, which can, and sadly are, exploited by other countries,” Vigneault said.
He called it “state capitalism”—where other countries don’t reciprocate Canada’s openness and support for a level playing field but instead take advantage by “aggressively advancing their own economic intelligence and military state’s interest at our expense.”
Thus, partnerships like the Five Eyes intelligence alliance are critical for Canada, and like-minded countries are looking to form alliances to protect their interests, Vigneault said.
But the onus also falls on the Canadian public, business sector, and academia to collaborate in combating national security threats, Vigneault said, calling for a “broader societal approach,” which could address another core focus for CSIS—violent extremism.
“In today’s dynamic threat environment, government, civil society, and the private sector must work together to harden the targets and protect our national interests,” Vigneault said.
The debate between privacy and security often comes up for spy agencies. Vigneault said what is detrimental is adopting an overly simplistic view that there can only be two alternatives: either allowing agencies to spy on people or letting individuals retain full privacy.
“Canada deserves a more dynamic, a more mature discussion on these issues.”