In this post I briefly discuss some of the highlights of the report and offer some productive criticism concerning who the report and its guidance is directed at, and the ability for individuals to act on the provided guidance. The report ultimately represents a valuable contribution to efforts to increase the awareness of national security issues in Canada and, on that basis alone, I hope that CSIS and other members of Canada’s intelligence and security community continue to publish these kinds of reports.
The report generally outlines a series of foreign interference-related threats that face Canada, and Canadians. Foreign interference includes, “attempts to covertly influence, intimidate, manipulate, interfere, corrupt or discredit individuals, organizations and governments to further the interests of a foreign country” and are, “carried out by both state and non-state actors” towards, “Canadian entities both inside and outside of Canada, and directly threaten national security” (Page 5). The report is divided into sections which explain why Canada and Canadians are targets of foreign interference, the types of foreign states’ goals, who might be targeted, and the techniques that might be adopted to apply foreign interference and how to detect and avoid such interference. The report concludes by discussing some of the election-specific mechanisms that have been adopted by the Government of Canada to mitigate the effects and effectiveness of foreign interference operations.
On the whole this is a pretty good overview document. It makes a good academic teaching resource, insofar as it provides a high-level overview of what foreign interference can entail and would probably serve as a nice kick off to discuss the topic of foreign interference more broadly.2
Last week I appeared before the Special Committee on Canada-Chinese Relations to testify about the security challenges posed by Chinese infrastructure vendors and communications intermediaries. . I provided oral comments to the committee which were, substantially, a truncated version of the brief I submitted. If so interested, my oral comments are available to download, and what follows in this post is the actual brief which was submitted.
I am a senior research associate at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. My research explores the intersection of law, policy, and technology, and focuses on issues of national security, data security, and data privacy. I submit these comments in a professional capacity representing my views and those of the Citizen Lab.
Successive international efforts to globalize trade and supply chains have led to many products being designed, developed, manufactured, or shipped through China. This has, in part, meant that Chinese companies are regularly involved in the creation and distribution of products that are used in the daily lives of billions of people around the world, including products that are integrated into Canadians’ personal lives and the critical infrastructures on which they depend. The Chinese government’s increasing assertiveness on the international stage and its belligerent behaviours, in tandem with opaque national security laws, have led to questioning in many Western countries of the extent to which products which come from China can be trusted. In particular, two questions are regularly raised: might supply chains be used as diplomatic or trade leverage or, alternately, will products produced in, transited through, or operated from China be used to facilitate government intelligence, attack, or influence operations?
For decades there have been constant concerns about managing technology products’ supply chains. In recent years, they have focused on telecommunications equipment, such as that produced by ZTE and Huawei, as well as the ways that social media platforms such as WeChat or TikTok could be surreptitiously used to advance the Chinese government’s interests. As a result of these concerns some of Canada’s allies have formally or informally blocked Chinese telecommunications vendors’ equipment from critical infrastructure. In the United States, military personnel are restricted in which mobile devices they can buy on base and they are advised to not use applications like TikTok, and the Trump administration aggressively sought to modify the terms under which Chinese social media platforms were available in the United States marketplace.
Legislators and some security professionals have worried that ZTE or Huawei products might be deliberately modified to facilitate Chinese intelligence or attack operations, or be drawn into bilateral negotiations or conflicts that could arise with the Chinese government. Further, social media platforms might be used to facilitate surveillance of international users of the applications, or the platforms’ algorithms could be configured to censor content or to conduct imperceptible influence operations.
Just as there are generalized concerns about supply chains there are also profound worries about the state of computer (in)security. Serious computer vulnerabilities are exposed and exploited on a daily basis. State operators take advantage of vulnerabilities in hardware and software alike to facilitate computer network discovery, exploitation, and attack operations, with operations often divided between formal national security organs, branches of national militaries, and informal state-adjacent (and often criminal) operators. Criminal organizations, similarly, discover and take advantage of vulnerabilities in digital systems to conduct identity theft, steal intellectual property for clients or to sell on black markets, use and monetize vulnerabilities in ransomware campaigns, and otherwise engage in socially deleterious activities.
In aggregate, issues of supply chain management and computer insecurity raise baseline questions of trust: how can we trust that equipment or platforms have not been deliberately modified or exploited to the detriment of Canadian interests? And given the state of computer insecurity, how can we rely on technologies with distributed and international development and production teams? In the rest of this submission, I expand on specific trust-related concerns and identify ways to engender trust or, at the very least, make it easier to identify when we should in fact be less trusting of equipment or services which are available to Canadians and Canadian organizations.
Over the past several months I’ve had the distinct honour to work with, and learn from, a number of close colleagues and friends on the topic of surveillance and censorship that takes place on WeChat. We have published a report with the Citizen Lab entitled, “We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus.” The report undertook a mixed methods approach to understand how non-China registered WeChat accounts were subjected to surveillance which was, then, used to develop a censorship list that is applied to users who have registered their accounts in China. Specifically, the report:
Presents results from technical experiments which reveal that WeChat communications conducted entirely among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.
Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China.
Upon analysis, files deemed politically sensitive are used to invisibly train and build up WeChat’s Chinese political censorship system.
From public information, it is unclear how Tencent uses non-Chinese-registered users’ data to enable content blocking or which policy rationale permits the sharing of data used for blocking between international and China regions of WeChat.
Tencent’s responses to data access requests failed to clarify how data from international users is used to enable political censorship of the platform in China.
Steven Levy’s book, “In the Plex: How Google Things, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” holistically explores the history and various products of Google Inc. The book’s significance comes from Levy’s ongoing access to various Google employees, attendance at company events and product discussions, and other Google-related cultural and business elements since the company’s inception in 1999. In essence, Levy provides us with a superb – if sometimes favourably biased – account of Google’s growth and development.
The book covers Google’s successes, failures, and difficulties as it grew from a graduate project at Stanford University to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Throughout we see just how important algorithmic learning and automation is; core to Google’s business philosophy is that using humans to rank or evaluate things “was out of the question. First, it was inherently impractical. Further, humans were unreliable. Only algorithms – well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data – could deliver unbiased results” (p. 16). This attitude of the ‘pure algorithm’ is pervasive; translation between languages is just an information problem that can – through suitable algorithms – accurately and effectively translate even the cultural uniqueness that is linked to languages. Moreover, when Google’s search algorithms routinely display anti-Semitic websites after searching for “Jew” the founders refused to modify the search algorithms because the algorithms had “spoke” and “Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. “I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice”” (p. 275). This is an important statement: the founders see the product of human mathematical ingenuity as non-human and lacking bias born of their human creation.