The head of Canada’s intelligence service warned business leaders Tuesday that foreign states are using a variety of clandestine methods to steal their secrets, putting the economy at risk.
“Hostile actors” are engaging in everything from cyberattacks and extortion to buying companies to get access to their trade secrets, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault said.
While Vigneault said terrorism remained the “number one national security-related danger to public safety in this country,” he called espionage and foreign interference “the greatest threat to our prosperity and national interest.”
“We have to be mindful that hostile states will use any means to recruit people, project their influence and gain access to our proprietary information. No matter how it’s done or who’s behind it, economic espionage represents a long-term threat to Canada’s economy and our prosperity,” Vigneault said.
At a rare public appearance in downtown Toronto, the CSIS director told the Economic Club of Canada that “plainly said: there is state-sponsored espionage in Canada.”
“And we’ve seen it across many sectors of our economy.”
Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the speech marked a change in focus at CSIS.
“While Mr. Vigneault is clear that terrorism remains the priority threat to public safety, this is the first time since 2001 that a CSIS official has said that the greatest threat to the national interest is foreign influence and espionage,” said Carvin, a national security expert.
“This represents a significant shift in the assessment of the threat environment by a key player in the Canadian intelligence community. The timing of this statement – less than a year before a federal election – is significant and is indicative that CSIS believes there likely will be sophisticated attempts to interfere with our election.”
Typical economic targets are companies or universities “that are active in emerging technology — the kind of potentially revolutionary discoveries that can bring massive profits,” said Vigneault, who took over CSIS last year.
“Many of these advanced technologies are dual-use in nature in that they could advance a country’s economic, security or military interests. In particular, CSIS has seen a trend of state-sponsored espionage in fields that are crucial to Canada’s ability to build and sustain a prosperous, knowledge-based economy.”
That includes artificial intelligence, quantum technology, 5G, biopharma and clean technologies, he added. “In other words, the foundations of Canada’s future economic growth.”
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Tracking economic spies is difficult, partly because they use encryption and cryptocurrencies to conceal what they’re up to, he said.
“And their attacks can be surgical in nature,” Vigneault added.
Canadian companies need to pay attention to their intellectual property, address their vulnerabilities and report suspicious activities, Vigneault told the audience at the luncheon.
With a federal election coming next year, the director also touched on foreign influence activities, which he said “can have a corrosive effect on our democratic systems and institutions.”
“Traditional interference by foreign spies remains the greatest danger, but interference using cyber means is a growing concern,” he said. “The scale, speed, range and impact of foreign interference has grown as a result of the internet, social media platforms and the availability of cheaper and more accessible cyber tools.”