China, Russia 'primary culprits' behind 'Cold War' levels of espionage and foreign interference towards Canada: CSIS

Two reports point to a 'sharp increase' in both the scope and scale of hostile activity towards Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic

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OTTAWA – Canada’s spy agency says that it “observed espionage and foreign interference activity at levels not seen since the Cold War” last year and that many security threats have become “much more serious.”

“The key national security threats facing Canada, namely violent extremism, foreign interference, espionage and malicious cyber activity, accelerated, evolved and in many ways became much more serious for Canadians,” warns Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director (CSIS) David Vigneault in the organization’s 2020 annual report.

His alarming conclusions were mirrored in a separate report also published Monday by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose mandate is to oversee Canada’s security and intelligence agencies.

“The threat from espionage and foreign interference is significant and continues to grow. Several states are responsible for conducting such activities in Canada, but intelligence shows that China and Russia remain the primary culprits,” reads the NSICOP report.


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Both reports point to a “sharp increase” in both the scope and scale of hostile activity towards Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, which focused on our nation’s health care sector and research facilities.

“We were surprised to see the continuation of the threats around science and technology, and research and development in this country, particularly around COVID science and COVID vaccines. That jumped out at us,” NSICOP chair David McGuinty said in an interview.

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Any mention of the number of cyber attacks by state-sponsored actors against Canada was redacted in the report, including the amount of successful compromises.

“I’m afraid we can’t actually tell you what the numbers are, but they’re certainly much higher than you would expect,” said NSICOP Executive Director Sean Jorgensen, while mentioning there was a “dramatic increase” in the first six months of 2020 led primarily by China and Russia.

In its latest annual report, CSIS also says those two countries as well as other unnamed foreign states continue to target not only Canadian governments in their attempts to steal political, military and economic information, but also non-governmental organizations such as universities and the private sector.

To do so, they often turned to “non-traditional collectors” of information and expertise, such as “researchers, private entities, and other third parties.”


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The agency also warns that some countries such as China are trying to “deceptively influence” the Canadian government to their benefit, namely by harassing, manipulating or intimidating various groups in Canada in order to either increase support for their policies or mute dissenters.

“An example of significant concern are activities by threat actors affiliated with the People’s Republic of China that seek to leverage and exploit critical freedoms that are otherwise protected by Canadian society and the Government in order to further the political interests of the Communist Party of China,” the report notes.

Another threat highlighted for the first time by NSICOP is how China and Russia have spied on our military in order to develop weapons “specifically designed to counter our defences and exploit our vulnerabilities.”

But major threats to Canada’s national security are also growing from within the country’s own borders.

Both CSIS and NSICOP noted the deeply concerning trend of growing ideologically motivated violent extremism (also known as IMVE) in Canada, such as xenophobia, gender-based violence or anti-authority narratives and dangerous conspiracy theories.

“Neo-Nazi groups are active and growing,” reads the NSICOP report, adding that research suggests the number of known white supremacist groups has tripled in five years, jumping from 100 in 2015 to closer to 300 in 2020.

“Violent attacks by Incel-inspired extremists also pose a growing threat. The Incel subculture is growing and increasingly overlapping with other types of violent extremism,” the report continues.


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McGuinty said members of the parliamentary committee were “very, very concerned ” when they began to understand the level of “proliferation and permeation” of extremist ideologies such as white supremacy within Canada.

CSIS says the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives,” reads its latest annual report.

“Some violent extremists view COVID-19 as a real but welcome crisis that could hasten the collapse of Western society. Other violent extremist entities have adopted conspiracy theories about the pandemic in an attempt to rationalize and justify violence.”

With the liberation of the so-called “caliphate” established by ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2019, another security concern highlighted by CSIS and NSICOP is the return of Canadian extremist travellers (CET).

New numbers from CSIS reveal that at least 200 Canadians are known to have left the country to join ISIS or other terrorist groups since 2013. As of last November, 61 have since returned and 122 remain in Turkey, Syria and Iraq (though an undisclosed number are suspected dead).

“CSIS is aware of the serious threat posed by CETs who return from conflict zones. The range of training and operational experience they acquire while abroad and the unique environment to which they have been exposed make CETs an especially dangerous threat to the security of Canada,” CSIS’s annual report explains.

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