In The Media

Experts say Munk Debate needs to include cybersecurity

by Amanda Connolly (feat. Kyle Matthews)

September 23, 2015

If there’s one issue that experts say must get attention in the upcoming Munk Debate on foreign policy, it’s how to move Canada’s international and domestic policies to keep up with the constantly evolving threat of cyber warfare.

“The issue that has to be discussed is cyber, cyber, cyber,” said Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence for CSIS. “[Terrorism] is a threat of the age but what is more important because of its short, medium and long-term impact is cybersecurity.”

Over the past year, cyber breaches have dominated international headlines and just this week, the U.S. and China announced they were negotiating formal rules of engagement for cyber warfare.

But despite calls for an international framework similar to the Geneva Convention to govern warfare online, the cyber world remains very much a Wild West despite increasingly high-profile hacks and attacks on both state and non-state targets.

The Government of Canada has been among those targeted. In June, the hacker collective Anonymous claimed responsibility for an attack that took down multiple government websites in retaliation over C-51; and last summer, a “Chinese state-sponsored actor” hacked into the computer systems at the National Research Council.

Similarly high-profile attacks in 2011  targeted Defence Research and Development Canada, and also managed to gain access to classified federal information as a result of a hack on the Treasury Board and Department of Finance websites.

South of the border, a hack attributed by the FBI to North Korea crippled Sony Pictures late last year, with the hackers claiming the attack was in retaliation for the pending release of The Interview, a comedy portraying the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.

And earlier this year, an attack on the American Office of Personnel Management that U.S. officials linked privately to China resulted in the theft of Social Security Numbers and other personal information from 21.5 million federal employees.

That’s not to mention attacks and cyber spying by Russia on Georgia, NATO, the Ukrainian government and other Western officials, or attacks linked to Iran. And survey after survey suggest cyber attacks are only going to keep increasing in the years to come.

The Canadian government has repeatedly said it takes cybersecurity seriously and made a point of announcing investments in domestic cyber infrastructure in the 2015 federal budget — $58 million over five years to protect the government of Canada’s essential cyber systems and critical infrastructure from cyber attacks, and another $36.4 million over five years to support the operators of Canada’s vital cyber systems in addressing cybersecurity threats.

But the discussion needs to go beyond the domestic sphere if the federal leaders want to get serious about addressing the myriad threats to cyber security.

“If we aren’t coordinating effectively, we risk compromising our security,” said Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College focusing on Canadian politics and foreign relations.

Chapnick says he wants there to be a recognition from the leaders in the debate that Canada can’t work alone to combat cyber threats and that it needs to be actively involved in shaping the next generation of international law focusing on cybersecurity to make sure it fits with Canada’s own international agenda.

“It would be nice to hear Canadian leaders talking about active involvement in international initiatives to establish security norms for cyber, to establish some sort of system of rules which most of the international community is willing to abide by that are consistent with Canada’s national interests,” he said. 

Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says he agrees and stressed the need to look at the issue through both a domestic and international lens to get the full picture.

“That should be, or hopefully will be, talked about,” he said.

While the issue might not be the sexiest politically, especially compared with more emotionally resonant issues like the Syrian refugee crisis and the fight against ISIS, Boisvert says the leaders will be making a big mistake if they think they can get away with not talking about the role Canada should play in developing strong international guidelines to govern the digital realm.

“Nuclear annihilation is not going to happen anytime soon, I hope. Cyber warfare targeting critical infrastructure will,” said Boisvert.

“Don’t leave Canada behind.”

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