Federal announcement about a threat to coming election will be a ‘last resort’

OTTAWA — The threshold will be high for any decision to alert Canadians to an attempt to interfere in the coming general election, the federal government says.

The extraordinary step of a public announcement would be “a last resort,” a senior official told reporters at a briefing Tuesday.

Employees of various agencies, speaking on condition of anonymity, discussed the steps that would be followed under the government’s “critical election incident public protocol” amid concerns that rogue players might try to manipulate candidates or voters this fall.  

Scenarios that could trigger an announcement include blackmail against political candidates, hacking of databases or the spread of false information through video manipulation — known as “deep fakes” — or other deceptive means.

An assessment from the federal Communications Security Establishment said in April it was very likely that Canadian voters would encounter foreign cyberinterference in advance of, and during, the election.

“At this time, we haven’t seen direct threats to the 2019 general election,” one official said Tuesday. “Foreign interference is not a new phenomenon. It’s evolving, of course. And so too are our methods to detect and combat it.”

Should the government become aware of an interference attempt during the writ period, security agencies would brief a panel composed of the Privy Council clerk (the country’s top public servant), the national−security adviser and the deputy ministers of foreign affairs, justice and public safety.

If the panel finds there is a substantial threat to a free and fair election, it would tell the prime minister, political−party officials and Elections Canada and then a public announcement will be made.

Canadians would be told what is known about the incident and any steps they should take to protect themselves.

“The threshold is high because you can’t have a situation where the panel’s intervening like 20, 30 times. That in itself is a disruption to the election,” said an official. “It has to be a last resort, not a first resort.”

Determining whether the threshold has been met will require considerable judgment, says a new cabinet directive setting out ministers’ expectations. Factors could include the degree to which an incident or multiple episodes undermine the integrity and credibility of the election and the level of confidence officials have in the intelligence.

Although a threat might emerge from a foreign source, or from somewhere in Canada, the focus should, as a starting point, be on foreign interference, the directive says. However, it might be difficult to quickly tell who is behind a threat. In addition, a foreign player could collaborate with domestic ones.

The protocol is intended to ensure a clear, transparent and consistent approach to informing Canadians about incidents that pose a serious threat, but will not be used as a means to referee the election, the government says.

“Elections in Canada have always been messy,” said one official. “They’ve always been rough−and−tumble — they’re going to continue to be. It’s not the role of the panel to moderate political discourse.”

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots both inside and outside the SHOAL Centre on election day in Sidney, B.C., on Oct. 19, 2015. A senior federal official says the threshold will be high for deciding to tell Canadians about an attempt to interfere in the coming general election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Citizens are seen as the strongest ally in combating attempts to meddle with the ballot.

“It starts and ends with Canadians,” the official said. “A critically thinking electorate is less likely to fall victim to disinformation in all its forms, whether it’s deep fakes or inflammatory content that’s meant to sow division.”

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Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press