A committee charged with looking into threats against Public Safety Minister Vic Toews by the hackers group Anonymous morphed into an examination of how the government handles cybersecurity as the experts appearing in front of MPs struggled to explain where they fit into the committee's investigation.
Representatives from Public Safety Canada, the RCMP and the Communications Security Establishment, an arm of the Defence Department that provides foreign signals intelligence to the goverment and works on national IT security, took questions from MPs on the Commons procedure and House affairs committee following a request by Toews that Parliament look into videos posted on the online video sharing site Youtube by Anonymous.
Anonymous is a loosely-organized group of hackers and activists in which anyone can declare their membership. Someone identifying him or herself as part of Anonymous posted videos on Youtube threatening to reveal details of Toews' public life if he didn't scrap his proposed online surveillance bill, C-30.
In the committee's first meeting on the subject of threats against Toews, House of Commons staff suggested it was a waste of time to try to track down whoever posted the video anonymously to a website.
Experts struggled to answer questions
In Tuesday's meeting, CSE's deputy chief of IT security turned to ways in which people's personal or work computers could be compromised.
Asked about the make-up of Anonymous, Toni Moffa said she couldn't speak to the intent of people who declare themselves members. What CSE looks at is techniques used to hack into systems, she said.
"Certainly what we look at are the techniques that are used by such groups and how to provide advice to prevent those things from being successful in our own systems. So I would be unable to comment," Moffa said.
She suggested MPs always install software patches as they arise and noted there's plenty of information about cybersecurity available on the agency's website. MPs were also advised not to open attachments from people they didn't know, or, upon receipt of an attachment from someone they know, to double-check that person intended to email an attachment.
Robert Gordon, a special advisor on cybersecurity to a unit within the Public Safety Department, said he couldn't give advice about the video itself.
"The actual posting of the Youtube [video] wasn’t a cyberevent ... so Public Safety Canada doesn’t provide advice on it," he said. "We would provide advice on protecting the various networks, but the actual posting of a video is a fairly easy thing to do. Unfortunately we’re not in a position to provide much advice on that."
MPs receive hate mail
Liberal MP Wayne Easter asked whether any countries are looking at ways of dealing with commenters on websites.
"Even for each and every one of us who’s not a minister, who take policy positions because it’s part of our job, we face hate mail, increasingly so. Because the people that are writing the letters do not have to sign their name," Easter said.
Moffa said she's a technical expert and couldn't comment.
The RCMP have confirmed there is an investigation into Toews' complaint. MPs and ministers are entitled to RCMP protection if they feel their safety has been threatened, said James Malizia, the RCMP's assistant commissioner of protective policing. But he couldn't comment on the investigation, he said.
Asked whether the RCMP could trace the person who uploaded the video, Malizia said he wasn't in a position to answer specific details about Toews' case.
"There are occasions where we are able to identify individuals. It’s case by case, each case is unique… sometimes we aren’t in a position to do so," he said.
At one point, the RCMP and Public Safety's national security expert couldn't say which department would be able to track down the IP address that could help identify who uploaded the videos. The RCMP doesn't have a mandate to work in cybersecurity, Malizia noted.
Public backlash over Toews' online surveillance bill was enormous, leading the government to promise to send it to committee early so it could be revised more extensively than usual. Some of those who felt their privacy was threatened took to social media for a campaign called #TellVicEverything, in which Twitter users inundated Toews' feed with tweets about the mundane details of their lives.
A spokesman for Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, the lead MP on scheduling debates, says there's no date set for C-30 to return to the floor of the House of Commons. Toews has to move in the House to send the bill to committee for study before it can go any further.
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