Report shows at least 75 foreign cyberthreats target Canada

Canadian security agencies are increasingly reporting cyber threats from abroad that aim to steal valuable information or interfere in political affairs by spreading false information or even compromising elected officials. (Photo: 123RF)

Ottawa — A new academic analysis has identified at least 75 foreign political or industrial cyberthreats targeting Canada since 2010, ranging from attempts to steal COVID-19-related research to attacks on Uyghur human rights defenders.

A report by researchers at the University of Quebec’s Observatory for Multidimensional Conflict in Montreal found that cyber espionage accounted for more than half of these episodes.

The Center brings together Canadian and international researchers who study how foreign actors attempt to destabilize states, weaken societies and institutions, and undermine critical systems through cyberattacks, disinformation and political interference.

The analysis focuses on what the center considers to be geopolitical or strategic cyber incidents, that is, events that are not primarily associated with criminal or national political activity, but rather with global rivalry and competition.

These events are reported to be most often held outside of Canada, usually organized by foreign governments for political, economic, or other purposes.

The targets are Canadian government agencies, the general public, research institutions and businesses, individuals or international organizations based in Canada.

“Some target Canada specifically, while others target multiple countries, including Canada.”

Canadian security agencies are increasingly reporting cyber threats from abroad that aim to steal valuable information or interfere in political affairs by spreading false information or even compromising elected officials.

Cyber ​​espionage against state secrets and intellectual property, as well as targeted surveillance of individuals account for 49 of the 75 incidents analyzed by the center.

The exact nature of cyber-espionage campaigns has sometimes been difficult to determine, the researchers caution, but about half of them were economic or industrial espionage.

“These operations were targeted at large companies, universities and other research and development organizations, mainly related to information technology, energy, finance and aerospace.”

Several digital espionage operations have targeted government agencies in Canada.

Other schemes targeted at Canada since 2010 include:

  • 15 cases of information manipulation, deliberate and coordinated dissemination of false or biased information in cyberspace for hostile purposes;
  • five cases of digital reconnaissance, fraudulent intrusion into a computer system for the purpose of mapping it or assessing vulnerabilities;
  • four defamation operations involving the takeover or alteration of a website or account for hostile political purposes;
  • and four episodes of doxin, the deliberate disclosure of personal information about individuals in order to humiliate, intimidate or punish them.

The researchers tracked the vast majority of geopolitical cyber incidents in Canada during the period under review in China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. However, they note that the governments of these countries were not necessarily involved. There, non-state forces could act independently.

The report also highlights three major worrying trends: the growing digital surveillance of activists in Canada by foreign powers, the expansion of the cyber mercenary industry, and a huge increase in ransomware attacks.

“Hackless hackers are often used by authoritarian states to harass political opponents, spy on NGOs and journalists, or steal personal information to blackmail and harass dissidents,” the document says.

“Cyberspace now offers countless new opportunities for states to spy and monitor anywhere in the world with minimal risk of retaliation.”

The researchers say that while Canada is not the primary target of cyber retaliation for supporting Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion, there are reasons to be vigilant.

Russia could encourage its cybercriminal networks to step up their attacks – especially ransomware attacks – against Canadian entities, including those that have taken specific actions against Moscow.

The report adds that despite efforts by NATO members to prevent any escalation, it is possible that Russia could eventually seek to strike critical Western infrastructure such as electrical grids.


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