Ottawa Provides Few Details on Plans for ‘New Tools’ to Fight ‘Extremist Ideology’

Ottawa Provides Few Details on Plans for ‘New Tools’ to Fight ‘Extremist Ideology’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Bowen Island, B.C., on July 19, 2022. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)
Noé Chartier

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in late May that “new tools” were needed to combat a host of threats, such as “misinformation,” social media being “weaponized,” and “right-wing terrorism,” but various government departments contacted by The Epoch Times provided few details on what those tools might be.

Public Safety mentioned investments in the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to improve cyber capabilities, the Privy Council Office said it’s coordinating “new measures” across departments, and Global Affairs raised Canada’s involvement in a G7 group to counter state-sponsored disinformation.

None of the responses, however, had a direct link to the domestic issues cited by Trudeau, nor were any specific tools revealed.

Phil Gurski, a 32-year veteran of the CSE and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who now runs Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, says the government should be more forthcoming about its plans while balancing the need for secrecy.

"It worries me that the government is so tight-lipped about this," Gurski said in an interview.

“You can't put out a note that 'we're giving the security services more powers and more tools to do things' without telling Canadians at least something about what those new powers and tools are," he said, noting the importance of transparency amid a tendency of public distrust toward police and security institutions.

On the issue of new tools, Gurski said there are currently rules in place requiring a court-issued warrant to intercept the communications of Canadians, and he doesn’t think the new measures would get around that.

This leaves the possibility of deploying computer-assisted analytic capabilities to sift through social media and detect potential threats, but he has reservations about that approach.

He says even back in the late 1990s, the amount of data collected by the CSE was like “drinking through a fire hose,” whereas currently, it would be like “drinking from Niagara Falls.”

Gurski says technical tools applied against the data would generate an “awful lot of false positives,” and there’s no algorithm that can differentiate between who is a good guy and a bad guy based on social media posts.

‘Extremist Ideology’

In his comments regarding “new threats weighing on our society and our country,” on May 24, Trudeau said the government is investing in new tools to combat the rising prevalence of misinformation and disinformation amid a “weaponized” social media environment he characterized as being manipulated by foreign actors and domestic “extremists.”

“Whether it’s extremist ideology and right-wing terrorism on the rise in Canada, or whether it’s examples like the illegal [Freedom Convoy] protests we saw in the winter, there are a whole new set of challenges that we need to be responding to,” he said.

 A sign for the Government of Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is seen outside their headquarters in the east end of Ottawa on July 23, 2015. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
A sign for the Government of Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is seen outside their headquarters in the east end of Ottawa on July 23, 2015. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

The Epoch Times asked Public Safety to provide details on the “new tools” and investments Trudeau spoke about.

In an email, spokesperson Magali Deussing listed the investments announced in previous budgets to protect against cyber threats, as well as $852.9 million earmarked in the latest budget to “enhance the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)’s ability to conduct cyber operations, make critical government systems more resilient, and prevent and respond to cyber incidents on critical infrastructure.”

Public Safety oversees several security agencies including CSIS, the RCMP, and the Canada Border Services Agency. It does not oversee the CSE, which falls under the Department of National Defence.

The CSE is precluded by law from targeting Canadians, unless through special authorization from the minister.

It’s not clear how defensive and offensive CSE cyber capabilities, meant to counter threats from and disrupt mostly state actors and criminal and terrorist organizations abroad, relate to some of the issues Trudeau cited, such as “extremist ideology and right-wing terrorism.”

Gurski believes the Liberal government's persistent focus on the “right wing” is a sign that security agencies could be politicized.

“This government seems, for reasons that I fail to understand, [to] try to convince us here in Canada the only threat worth worrying about is the 'far-right,' 'Freedom Convoy'—whatever they’re calling it.”

He says the issue of right-wing extremism is real and should be looked at, but it’s “not the only phenomenon out there.”

“They think that white folk who are angry are the only threat and I point out, on a daily basis, that if you look beyond your belly button, you will notice that around the world globally, on a daily basis, Islamist terrorism still kills 99 percent of all people that die in terrorist acts.”

‘Democracy Faces a Growing Threat’

Despite alluding to the Freedom Convoy and related protests of last winter, Trudeau said in May his government would take measures “in a way that continues to defend freedom of speech” and freedom to protest.

He said his government is working closely with national security agencies and the CSE to respond to issues like “extremist ideology and right-wing terrorism.”

Given the CSE's foreign mandate, its involvement would be highly unlikely or extremely rare in domestic issues.

On the foreign front, the CSE has been publicly involved in countering disinformation from Russia since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

When asked how CSE cyber capabilities could be used to address Trudeau's concerns, Deussing responded by transferring The Epoch Times’ inquiry to the Privy Council Office (PCO) and Global Affairs Canada.

In response, PCO spokesperson Pierre-Alain Bujold highlighted $10 million allocated to the PCO in Budget 2022 to take a leadership role to “coordinate, develop, and implement government-wide measures to combat disinformation and protect Canada’s democracy.”

“In Canada, and around the world, democracy faces a growing threat from actors seeking to weaken its institutions and undermine citizens’ trust in their government,” Bujold said in a July 14 email.

“This threat includes the use of disinformation to undermine democratic processes and to hinder the government’s ability to pursue core policy objectives—such as ensuring public health, safety and security—by undermining trust in public institutions.”

When asked specifically about the “new tools” Trudeau cited and whether the prime minister perhaps misspoke, Bujold responded that “In this context, new tools and new measures carry the same meaning.”

The PCO is an advisory body to the prime minister and cabinet. It is not a security agency that could require tools to address a threat.

‘Foreign Threat Actors’

Global Affairs, which has no domestic mandate, also provided a response via Bujold on the issue of the “new tools.”

“Foreign threat actors are targeting democratic institutions and processes; media and the information environment; and fundamental freedoms and human rights at an alarming rate,” the email said.

It mentioned Canada’s involvement in the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), established to “identify and respond to foreign threats to democracy, including state-sponsored disinformation.”

Budget 2022 earmarked $13.4 million over five years to support the RRM. Part of this work involves “improving collective analytical capability to counter disinformation online,” which could include the use of technical tools.