The Policy and Political Implications of ‘Securing Canada’s Telecommunications Systems’

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Many of Canada’s closest allies have either firmly or softly blocked Huawei and ZTE from selling telecommunications equipment to Internet service providers in their countries over the past several years. After repeated statements from Canadian government officials that a review of Huawei equipment was ongoing, on May 19, 2022 the government announced its own bans on Huawei and ZTE equipment. The government published an accompanying policy statement from Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) Canada on the same day.

This post begins by summarizing the possible risks that Chinese vendors might pose to Canadian networks. Next, it moves to discuss the current positions of Canada’s closest allies as well as Canada’s actions and statements pertaining to Chinese telecommunications vendors leading up to the May 2022 announcement. It then proceeds to unpack the government’s “Securing Canada’s Telecommunications System” policy statement. Some highlight findings include:

  • The government is unclear when it refers to “supply chain breaches”;
  • The government may be banning Huawei and ZTE principally on the basis of American export restrictions placed on Chinese vendors and, thus, be following the same model as the United Kingdom which was forced to ban Huawei following American actions; and
  • Establishing the security and protection of telecommunications systems as an “overriding objective” of Canadian telecommunications policy could have long-term implications for Canadians’ privacy interests.

The post concludes by discussing the policy and political implications of the policy statement, why any telecommunications security reforms must not be accompanied by broader national security and law enforcement reforms, and why the Canadian government should work with allied and friendly countries to collectively assess telecommunications equipment.

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Findings and Absences in Canada’s (Draft) International Cybersecurity Strategy

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For several years there have been repeated calls by academics and other experts for the Government of Canada to develop and publish a foreign policy strategy. There have also been recent warnings about the implications of lacking such a strategy. Broadly, a foreign policy strategy is needed for Canada to promote and defend its interests effectively.

Not only has the Government of Canada failed to produce a foreign policy strategy but, also, it has failed to produce even a more limited strategy that expresses how Canada will develop or implement the cyber dimensions of its foreign policy. The government itself has been aware of the need to develop a cyber foreign policy since at least 2010.1

As I have previously written with colleagues, an articulation of such a cybersecurity strategy is necessary because it is “inherently a discussion of political philosophy; not all actors share the same understanding of what is, or should be, the object of security, nor is there necessarily a shared understanding of what constitutes a threat.” To clearly and explicitly assert its underlying political values Canada needs to produce a coherent and holistic cyber foreign policy strategy.

On May 18, 2021 the Chief of the Communications Security Establishment, Shelly Bruce, stated that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) was leading the development of “Canada’s International Cybersecurity Strategy and our Diplomacy Initiative.” I subsequently filed an ATIP for it and received the relevant documents on March 31, 2022.2 GAC’s response included successive drafts of “Canada’s International Cybersecurity Strategy and our Diplomacy Initiative” (hereafter the ‘Strategy’ or ‘CICSDI’) from January 2021 to May 2021.

Some of my key findings from the CICSDI include:

  1. The May 2021 draft links the scope of the Strategy to order and prosperity as opposed to advancing human rights or Canadian values.
  2. The May 2021 draft struck language that Canadians and Canadian organisations “should not be expected to independently defend themselves against state or state-backed actors. There are steps only government can take to reduce cyber threats from state actors”. The effect may be to reduce the explicit expectation or requirement of government organisations to assist in mitigating nation-state operations towards private individuals and organisations.
  3. The May 2021 draft struck language that GAC would create a cyber stakeholder engagement action plan as well as language that GAC would leverage its expertise to assist other government departments and agencies on engagement priorities and to coordinate international outreach.
  4. None of the drafts include explicit reference to pressing international issues, including: availability of strong encryption, proliferation of cyber mercenaries, availability and use of dual-use technologies, online harms and disinformation, authoritarian governments’ attempts to lead and influence standards bodies, establishing a unit in GAC dealing with cyber issues that would be equivalent to the US State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, or cyber operations and international law.
  5. None of the drafts make a positive case for what would entail an appropriate or responsible use of malware for cyber operations.

In this post I summarise the highlights in the drafts of the Strategy and, then, proceed to point to larger language and/or policy shifts across successive drafts of the CICSDI. I conclude by discussing some policy issues that were not mentioned in the drafts I obtained. While the draft has never been promulgated and consequently does not formally represent Canada’s foreign cybersecurity strategy it does present how GAC and the government more broadly conceptualised elements of such a strategy as of early- to mid-2021.

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The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance

Last week I released a new report, The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians, through the Telecommunications Transparency Project. The Project is associated with the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and the report was funded through the Canadian Internet Registration Authorities’s .CA Community Investment Program.

The report examines how contemporary telecommunications surveillance is governed in Canada. In it, we ask how much telecommunications surveillance is occurring in Canada, what actors are enabling the surveillance, to what degree those actors disclose their involvement in (and the magnitude of) surveillance, and what degree of oversight is given to the federal governments’ surveillance practices. We conclude that serious failures in transparency and accountability indicate that corporations are failing to manage Canadians’ personal information responsibly and that government irresponsibility surrounding accountability strains its credibility and aggravates citizens’ cynicism about the political process. In aggregate, these failings endanger both the development of Canada’s digital economy and aggravate the democratic deficit between citizens and their governments.

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Microsoft’s OneDrive Storage Expands NSA Surveillance

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Earlier this month Microsoft announced that its Office 365 subscribers would be able to upload an unlimited amount of data into Microsoft’s cloud-based infrastructure. Microsoft notes that the unlimited data storage capacity is:

just one small part of our broader promise to deliver a single experience across work and life that helps people store, sync, share, and collaborate on all the files that are important to them, all while meeting the security and compliance needs of even the most stringent organizations.

Previously, subscribers could store up to 1TB of data in OneDrive. The new, unlimited storage model, creates new potential uses of the Microsoft cloud including even “wholesale backup of their computer hard drives, or even of their local backup drives”. And, given OneDrive’s integration with contemporary Windows operating systems there is the opportunity for individuals to expand what they store to the Cloud so it can be accessed on other devices.

While the expanded storage space may be useful to some individuals and organizations, it’s important to question Microsoft’s assertion that OneDrive meets the most stringent organization’s security and compliance needs. One reason to question these assertions arise out of a memo that was disclosed by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. The memo revealed that:

NSA Memo on Microsoft enabling SIGINT Access to SkyDrive

As summarized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act which is mentioned in the NSA memo is extremely permissive. The section has been used to authorize:

  • collection of Americans’ phone records without a warrant;
  • access to large portions of Internet traffic that moves through American servers;
  • disclosure of collected information to other parties (e.g. the Drug Enforcement Agency);

European policy analysts agree that Section 702 is overly permissive(.pdf) and argue that the definitions used in the section are so general that “any data of assistance to US foreign policy is eligible, including expressly political surveillance over ordinary lawful democratic activities.” The scope of surveillance was made worse as a result of the FISA Amendments Act 2008. While the FAA 2008 is perhaps best known for providing legal immunity to companies which participated in the warrantless wiretapping scandal, it also expanded the scope of NSA surveillance. Specifically:

[b]y introducing “remote computing services” (a term defined in ECPA 1986 dealing with law enforcement access to stored communications), the scope was dramatically widened communications and telephony to include Cloud computing (.pdf source).

Microsoft’s expansion of OneDrive storage limits is meant to enhance its existing consumer cloud offerings. And such cloud storage can produce workplace efficiencies by simplifying access to documents, protecting against device loss, and externalizing some security-related challenges.

However, if subscribers take advantage of the new unlimited storage and send ever-increasing amounts of data into Microsoft’s cloud, then there will be a much greater amount of information that is readily available to the NSA (and other allied SIGINT agencies). And given that Section 702 authorizes surveillance of foreign political activities there is a real likelihood that data content which was previously more challenging for NSA to access will now be more readily available to interception and analysis.

Signals intelligence agencies, such as the NSA, are likely not top of mind threats to individuals around the world. However, Microsoft’s willingness to manufacture government access to personal and business data should give people pause before they generate sensitive documents, share or store intimate photos, or otherwise place important data in Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure. Any company so willing to engineer its users’ privacy out of personal and enterprise services alike must be treated with a degree of suspicion and its product announcement and security assurances with extremely high levels of skepticism.

Canadian Social Media Surveillance: Today and Tomorrow

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After disappearing for an extended period of time – to the point that the Globe and Mail reported that the legislation was dead – the federal government’s lawful access legislation is back on the agenda. In response to the Globe and Mail’s piece, the Public Safety Minister stated that the government was not shelving the legislation and, in response to the Minister’s statements, Open Media renewed the campaign against the bill. What remains to be seen is just how ‘lively’ this agenda item really is; it’s unclear whether the legislation remains on a back burner or if the government is truly taking it up.

While the politics of lawful access have been taken up by other parties, I’ve been pouring through articles and ATIP requests related to existing and future policing powers in Canada. In this post I first (quickly) outline communications penetration in Canada, with a focus on how social media services are used. This will underscore just how widely Canadians use digitally-mediated communications systems and, by extension, how many Canadians may be affected by lawful access powers. I then draw from publicly accessible sources to outline how authorities presently monitor social media. Next, I turn to documents that have been released through federal access to information laws to explicate how the government envisions the ‘nuts and bolts’ of their lawful access legislation. This post concludes with a brief discussion of the kind of oversight that is most appropriate for the powers that the government is seeking.

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The Danger Online Voting Poses to Democratic Legitimacy

Vote Mob @ Memorial University of Newfoundland  Online voting is a serious issue that Canadians need to remain aware of and/or become educated about. I’ve previously written about issues surrounding Internet-based voting, and was recently interviewed about online elections in light of problems that the National Democratic Party (NDP) had during their 2012 leadership convention. While I’m generally happy with how the interview played out – and thankful to colleagues for linking me up with the radio station I spoke on – there were a few items that didn’t get covered in the interview because of time limitations. This post is meant to take up those missed items, as well as let you go and listen to the interview for yourself.

Public Dialogue Concerning the NDP Leadership ‘Attack’

There are claims that the attacks against the NDP’s online voting system were “sophisticated” and that “the required organization and the demonstrated orchestration of the attack indicates that this was a deliberate effort to disrupt or negate the election by a knowledgeable person or group.” Neither of these statements are entirely fair or particularly accurate. Publicly disclosed information indicates that around 10,000 IP addresses were used to launch a small Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against the voting system used during the NDP’s convention. To be clear: this is a relatively tiny botnet.

While such a botnet might justifiably overwhelm some small business networks, or other organizations that haven’t seen the need to establish protections against DDoS scenarios, it absolutely should not be capable of compromising an electoral process. Such a process should be significantly hardened: scalable infrastructure ought to have been adopted, and all services ought to be sitting behind a defensible security perimeter. To give you an understanding of just how cheap a botnet (of a much larger size) can be: in 2009, a 80,000-120,000 machine botnet would run around $200/day. You even got a 3-minute trial window! In 2010, VeriSign’s iDefence Intelligence Operations Team reported that a comparable botnet would run around $9/hr or $67/day.

If a few Google searches and a couple hundred dollars from a Paypal account can get you a small botnet (and give you access to technical support to help launch the attack, depending on who you rent your bots from) then we’re not dealing with a particularly sophisticated individual or group, or an individual or group that necessarily possesses very much knowledge about this kinds of attacks. Certainly the action of hiring a botnet demonstrates intent but it’s an incredibly amateurish attempt, and one that should have been easily stopped by the vendor in question.

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