China, Russia ‘Primary Culprits’ in Conducting Espionage and Foreign Interference in Canada: Parliamentary Report

COVID-19 research among top targets for espionage operations
April 14, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

China and Russia remain the “primary culprits” when it comes to espionage and foreign interference that threaten Canada’s sovereignty, a committee that oversees national security and intelligence activities says in its annual report.

“The threat from espionage and foreign interference is significant and continues to grow. Several states are responsible for conducting such activities in Canada, but intelligence shows that China and Russia remain the primary culprits,” reads the report by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.

Tabled in the House of Commons on April 12, the report updates the threats Canada faces since the committee’s last assessment in 2018. It takes into account the shift in domestic and international security environments, including the challenges that have arisen due to the pandemic.

The committee says the pandemic has given foreign states a new impetus to conduct espionage activities against Canada’s health sector and science and technology sector, particularly research on COVID-19 and vaccines.

The report warns that foreign states are increasingly targeting those sectors using “a combination of traditional and non-traditional intelligence collection methods to access expertise, data, and organizations.”

“The pandemic put these threats into stark relief, in particular the threats posed to Canada’s health sector,” the report says.

In the case of China, the communist regime uses its “’talent programs’ and academic exchanges to exploit Canadian expertise,” the report said. Beijing’s Thousand Talents Program encourages Chinese scientists in Canada to transfer their research to China so that the regime can “steal hard-won research and proprietary data” created by Canadian companies.

Russia, on the other hand, mainly engages in “clandestine cyber operations to steal proprietary data,” as noted by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s cryptologic agency, the report says.

The committee said new technologies in Canada’s knowledge-based economy such as artificial intelligence, quantum technology, 5G, and biopharma are “actively targeted” by foreign states, a situation also reported on by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

“CSIS’s 2018 public report also characterized economic espionage as a threat of importance that has serious consequences for Canada’s economy, including lost jobs, lost tax revenues and diminished competitive advantage,” the report reads.

As for foreign interference, the committee warns that foreign state actors seek to exploit the openness of Canadian society and penetrate the country’s fundamental institutions to meet their goals.

“They target ethnocultural communities, corrupt the political process, manipulate the media, and attempt to curate debate on postsecondary campuses,” the report says.

“Each of these activities poses a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and to the country’s sovereignty, and the Committee concluded that they are a clear threat to the security of Canada.”

The report lists cases of foreign interference by China, Russia, and other states, including Russia’s ongoing exploitation of diaspora and compatriot groups in Canada, and CSIS investigation of activities by the Chinese regime, but the details are redacted.

Cyber Threats

Another area of concern identified by the committee is cyberattacks, with China and Russia being “the most sophisticated state-sponsored actors targeting Canadian government systems.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee heard from the CSE that state-sponsored actors have targeted the health sector to obtain information related to vaccine research and development, medical equipment, and response co-ordination, and the threat will likely continue throughout the pandemic.

Among the cyber threats most concerning to national security and intelligence are: “information theft for espionage purposes; the compromise of critical infrastructure networks; online foreign influence campaigns through coordinated manipulation of social media and opinions; and the cyber-enabled tracking and surveillance of dissidents and individuals.”

According to the report, China uses its cyber capabilities to conduct espionage operations on the Canadian governments and its allies, companies, and academic institutions worldwide to gather commercial, diplomatic, and military intelligence. Russia has likewise employed advanced cyber espionage tactics to achieve its objectives.

The report also says China, Russia, and Iran have demonstrated their intent to build up cyber attack capabilities against industrial control systems linked to critical infrastructure, which if successful can compromise critical services such as hospitals, health networks, electricity, energy, transportation, and food distribution systems.

“Canada and its closest security and intelligence partners have reported on cyber attacks and network compromises of energy utilities, banks, and telecommunications and communications infrastructure, as well as the networks of cloud-based service providers,” the report reads.

When it comes to online foreign influence, the CSE found that cyber threat actors conduct disinformation campaigns, sow discord, and undermine public trust in government institutions. One case involved Twitter accounts connected to a Russian troll farm tweeting about high-profile events in Canada, such as the Quebec City mosque shooting in January 2017 and the increase in asylum-seeker border-crossings the same year.

The committee also noted that state-sponsored actors have developed advanced technology to target political opponents or dissidents through eavesdropping, geolocation, or changing content of the targeted user’s mobile device.

Nuclear Threats

According to the report, nuclear weapons states continue to modernize their weapons systems. China, for example, has remained at the forefront of testing and developing its ballistic missiles, the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces found (DND/CAF). Similarly, Russia, North Korea, and Iran also carry out missile testing.

“The threat to Canada from the use of nuclear weapons is limited to Russia and China, who would likely consider striking Canadian targets during a nuclear conflict with the United States. DND/CAF assesses that while both states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals, their primary strategic objectives remain deterring a major conventional or nuclear attack,” the report reads.

The committee also found that the terrorist threat to Canada has shifted since its last assessment in 2018. It suggests the threat posed by Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS has declined while other ideologically motivated violent extremist groups are on the rise.

With files from the Canadian Press