CSIS says 2020 was a banner year for espionage operations targeting Canada

·3 min read
CSIS director David Vigneault holds a press conference on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
CSIS director David Vigneault holds a press conference on Parliament Hill. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's spy agency says 2020 saw the highest level of foreign espionage and foreign interference directed at Canadian targets since the end of the Cold War.

"The fluid and rapidly evolving environment caused by COVID-19 has created a situation ripe for exploitation by threat actors seeking to advance their own interests," said Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault in his agency's 2020 report, released today.

"In 2020, CSIS observed espionage and foreign interference activity at levels not seen since the Cold War."

The report follows a year of warnings from CSIS and other security agencies about national security vulnerabilities in Canada's biopharmaceutical and life sciences sectors. Those sectors were exposed to outside interference as large numbers of Canadians transitioned to working from home — and as research involving vaccine, therapeutics and other measures to combat COVID-19 became far more valuable.

"The key national security threats facing Canada, namely violent extremism, foreign interference, espionage and malicious cyber activity, accelerated, evolved and in many ways became much more serious for Canadians," said Vigneault in the report.

CSIS said it contacted 225 entities across Canada and briefed at least 2,000 Canadian stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and continues to do in 2021.

The breadth of pandemic-related espionage was also flagged in a new report by the the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, one of Canada's national security oversight committees, which was released today.

Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of the committee, said the pandemic is driving some foreign states to ramp up their espionage, interference and cyber threat efforts against Canadian targets — including companies engaged in vaccine development.

Foreign actors are interested in Canada's vaccine development and rollout, says a new report from one of Canada's key national security oversight committees.
Foreign actors are interested in Canada's vaccine development and rollout, says a new report from one of Canada's key national security oversight committees. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"What we have concluded is that with this tumultuous year, [with] the increase in research in science and technology and the increase in research when it comes to vaccines and intellectual property, there's been an increase in interest of some actors trying to get their hands on that research," he told CBC News in an interview.

China running 'talent programs' to learn Canadian info

CSIS said one of the ways foreign actors collected political, economic and military information in Canada last year was through "nontraditional collectors," like researchers and private entities.

One of those tools, China's Thousand Talents Program, was explained in the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians report.

Launched in 2008, the program encourages Chinese scientists abroad to bring their research to China and is currently under investigation in the U.S.

"China uses 'talent programs' and academic exchanges to exploit Canadian expertise ... The result of this program is that intellectual property is often transferred to China," said NSICOP.

"In many cases, these actors are targeting the same types of science and technology in which the government of Canada is investing."

CSIS said foreign states also continued to target members of vulnerable communities in 2020.

"These communities often fear state-backed or state-linked retribution targeting both themselves and possibly their loved ones in Canada and abroad," said their report.

David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parlmentarians, holds a news conference.
David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parlmentarians, holds a news conference.(Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"When community groups in Canada are subjected to such harassment, manipulation, or intimidation by foreign states that are either seeking to gather support or mute criticism of their policies, these activities constitute a threat to Canada's sovereignty and to the safety of Canadians."

The CSIS report said, for example, that there are credible reports of Canadian-based relatives of individuals who died when Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was shot down last year experiencing harassment and intimidation by individuals linked to proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"This activity may constitute foreign interference," said the agency.