Foreign states targeting Canadians through social media, CSIS warns

Foreign threat actors and foreign terrorist groups are using the social media feeds of Canadians to profile individuals and magnify misinformation, officials from Canada’s spy agency warned members of Parliament Monday.

Cherie Henderson, an assistant director with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), warned that hostile foreign actors aren’t waiting for elections to interfere in Canada.

“Foreign interference doesn’t just occur during an election,” Henderson told members of the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics. “Foreign interference occurs all the time, every day.”

Henderson said she’s also very concerned about the threat of foreign terrorist organizations seeking to draw young Canadians to their causes.

“That’s what I’m very, very worried about,” she said. “Because I think that we’ve got a lot of very vulnerable youth at this time and a lot of very hostile actors that are willing to take advantage of those children.”

The committee is studying the extent to which the personal information Canadians share with social media platforms can end up in the hands of foreign governments. The hearings come months after the federal government banned TikTok from all government-issued phones on the recommendation of Canada’s chief information officer.

That ban followed warnings that the Chinese government could access the data of TikTok users.

Last month, an official from TikTok told the committee the company follows Canadian law and insisted that China and the Chinese government could not view the data of Canadian users.

On Monday, as officials from Canada’s spy agency and the Communications Security Establishment’s (CSE) Canadian Centre for Cyber Security appeared before the committee, the focus was on the possible threats posed by all social media platforms.

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Henderson said foreign threat actors use a variety of tools and can scrape social media accounts. The more Canadians share online about their lives, the better those actors can target them and influence them.

“Threat actors, including the Russian Federation and the PRC (China), exploit media to spread disinformation, leveraging suggestive algorithms to amplify echo chambers and manipulating content for unsuspecting viewers,” Henderson told MPs.

In addition to China and Russia, Iran and North Korea also top the list of countries of concern, she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un examine a launch pad of Soyuz rockets during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, Russia on Sept. 13, 2023. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin/The Associated Press)

While officials can sometimes observe attempts at interference taking place, Henderson said identifying the actual origin of that interference can take a very long time.

Sami Khoury, head of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, said his agency is worried about artificial intelligence being used by foreign threat actors to increase their ability to interfere in Canada.

“We know that artificial intelligence is often used to amplify misinformation. That is part of the algorithmic nature of some of those tools, to amplify misinformation,” Khoury said. “We’re also concerned about information leakage with artificial intelligence when you interact online.”

Khoury and Henderson said Canadians should pay more attention to the information that they are putting online, where it is being stored and how it can be used.

NDP MP Matthew Green raised the threat posed by social media platforms that aren’t based in hostile countries. He pointed out that foreign threat actors can simply buy data on Canadians that companies like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) gather and sell.

Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, warned that information about Canadians who use social media platforms is regularly sold and traded and warned that tougher laws are needed to protect personal privacy online.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at Elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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