01/30/2019 16:53 EST | Updated 01/30/2019 16:53 EST

Liberals Unveil Plan To Keep Foreign Meddlers Out Of Canada’s Next Election

The democratic institutions minister said it would be "naive" to think Canada is immune to cyber attacks.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould attend a press conference with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in Ottawa on Jan. 30, 2019.

OTTAWA — The federal government announced new measures Wednesday to combat foreign interference in Canadian elections, including unprecedented security briefings for national political party officials during the election period.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Canada's security agencies will provide "direct" security briefings to "key members of national political campaigns." The officials will have to obtain security clearance and may be shared on classified information, he said.

Watch: New protocol to alert voters of 'treat' to election integrity

By offering up-to-date information, government officials hope political parties will take the steps necessary to protect their own internal voter databases from being hacked.

These databanks, which vary among political parties, contain troves of personal information that could be stolen and used by foreign-based actors for disinformation campaigns to influence public debate about election issues.

Goodale told reporters Wednesday that the security briefings will help parties be aware of active foreign interference campaigns, both cyber and human, targeting Canadian elections.

"We all want the parties to have the latest most reliable information," he said.

Goodale was joined by Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to unveil a four-pronged strategy to protect the integrity of Canadian elections.

It includes raising awareness of confirmed disinformation campaigns, mitigating cybersecurity risks targeting political parties, and improving communication between security agencies and among G7 allies.

The last is an expectation for social media companies to police their platforms and do their part in being transparent in their efforts to respond to any disinformation campaigns that may run amok online.

Officials tout "made-in-Canada" strategy

Awareness campaigns will get $7 million in funding to boost digital, news, and civic literacy in hopes of helping voters "better understand online deceptive practices."

The democratic institutions minister announced five senior civil servants will be appointed to a "critical election incident public protocol" group during the writ period. Their task is to address any election-meddling issues that fall outside of Elections Canada's mandate.

"The protocol establishes a simple and impartial process to inform Canadians of a threat to the integrity of the 2019 federal election," Gould explained. "It is designed to avoid the kind of gridlock that could prevent an effective public announcement."

It would be naive of us to assume we are not a target for cyber attack.Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould

This motley crew of "Canada's finest public servants" with extensive backgrounds in national security, foreign affairs, government, and the legal system, will be tasked with issuing "impartial" public new releases about significant "incidents that threaten the integrity of the election," according to a government release.

When asked about how the government plans to handle domestic disinformation campaigns, Gould said the new measures are "not about refereeing" the upcoming fall election.

"This is about alerting Canadians about an incident that jeopardizes their rights to a free and fair election," she said. "We are members of the G7, of NATO, of the Five Eyes. It would be naive of us to assume we are not a target for cyber attack."

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Canadian officials leaned on lessons from incidents related to recent elections in France and in the United States to draft this plan, the minister said.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the government has "oversold and under delivered" on its new measures to mitigate the risk of foreign interference in Canada's elections.

The government's plan has an obvious blind spot, he said, with its exclusion of the chief electoral officer from the five-member group of public servants.

Canada's chief electoral officer is Stéphane Perrault. He was appointed last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a 10-year term, charged with overseeing the administration of elections.

"There's no reason not to have the chief electoral officer there," the NDP democratic reform critic said.

He raised concerns about a group of civil servants, hired by the previous government, who have the authority to publicize notices that a political party has been hacked by foreign actors.

Such an announcement would be a "political bombshell" for any party, Cullen said.

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