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Senior public servants bracing for threats of foreign interference, fed officials say

By Palak Mangat      

Among the scenarios the panel looked at were incidents that the use of deepfakes, blackmail of political candidates, the intimidation of riding associations, and spread of misinformation.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould released a cabinet directive on Tuesday, outlining the mandate of the panel. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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While there are no major threats of political interference currently facing Canada ahead of the October election, the panel of five senior public servants has been periodically running simulations of potential incidents throughout the summer. 

In a not-for-attribution briefing on Tuesday, federal officials said, the select group of civil servants tasked with warning the public if there are foreign, covert attempts to undermine the electoral process has held mock exercises to gauge how the group reacts in real time, when faced with incomplete information. Those exercises will pick up in September, around the time when the writ will be dropped, when they expect the activity of foreign actors to pick up.

Among the scenarios the panel looked at were incidents that the use of deepfakes, blackmail of political candidates, the intimidation of riding associations, and spread of misinformation.

Officials said the panel will likely focus on incidents of “clandestine” nature and consider the intent of the information being shared.

Three guidelines will inform their deliberations in deciding whether the high threshold for issuing an alert is met: its potential to undermine the credibility of the election, the degree of confidence officials have in the intelligence provided by Canada’s security agencies, and the degree to which it’s able to determine whether Canadians will have a free and fair election.

The panel—formally known as the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol—includes the clerk of the Privy Council, the national security adviser, and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety, and foreign affairs. It was modelled in response to the experiences of U.S. and France with foreign interference. In 2017, during France’s presidential elections, for example, then-candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was the target of a WikiLeaks email dump two days before the vote.

All five panel members have to agree the threshold has been met, and only then will be the public be alerted. It’s up to the clerk of the Privy Council, a post now held by Ian Shugart, to ask the relevant agency to issue a statement, notifying Canadians of the incident.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) released a cabinet directive on Tuesday, outlining the mandate of the panel.

Incidents of interference that are limited to a single riding, for example, officials said, wouldn’t necessarily warrant an alert, as it could be dealt with by at the local level. Officials cited the example of fake  stories about NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh owning a $5.5-million mansion, which was taken offline after reports in the Tyee.

The panel’s emphasis on foreign actors is reflective of global trends, government officials said, though they did acknowledge that domestic threats were possible and the panel could weigh in. 

After this year’s election, an independent report will be presented to the government assessing the tool’s effectiveness in identifying and addressing threats, with it to help guide if such a tool should become a permanent fixture for future elections. It’s unclear who will be responsible for producing the report. 

The Hill Times 

Palak Mangat

Palak Mangat is an online reporter with The Hill Times.
- pmangat@hilltimes.com


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