Five top public servants to warn of major meddling with next federal election

OTTAWA — An impartial group of senior bureaucrats will warn Canadians if malicious actors try to manipulate the outcome of this fall's federal election.

The Trudeau government announced the "critical election incident protocol" on Wednesday as part of a series of new measures aimed at ensuring a fair election on Oct. 21, free from malign foreign interference.

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Under the protocol, five senior public servants will have the authority to decide when an incident is egregious enough to warrant going public in the midst of a campaign. They will not need the approval of their political masters who could have a partisan interest in disclosing — or withholding — the information.

"Our goal was to find a way to instill confidence in both the message and messenger, while remaining impartial," Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told a news conference, flanked by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

"Let me be clear: This is not about refereeing the election. This about alerting Canadians of an incident that jeopardizes their rights to a free and fair election."

The protocol is intended to avoid the dilemma that faced James Comey, the FBI director during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when he was confronted with evidence of Russian interference apparently aimed at boosting Donald Trump.

Comey had wanted to publish an op-ed article months prior to the election, warning Americans about Russian interference. He was overruled by Barack Obama's outgoing administration, which eventually went public with the information weeks before the vote.

The five public servants charged with determining what should be revealed during a Canadian federal campaign are: the clerk of the Privy Council, the government's national security adviser, and the deputy ministers of Justice, Public Safety and Global Affairs. They will act based on evidence provided by national security agencies.

The protocol will apply only during the official campaign, known as the writ period. Outside that period, national-security agencies will continue to inform the prime minister and democratic institutions minister of specific incidents of foreign interference and it will be up to them to decide when or if to make the details public.

The government said the threshold for going public during the campaign will be high, applying only to serious cyberattacks or orchestrated disinformation campaigns through social media to undermine the integrity of an election. While aimed primarily at foreign actors, officials said the protocol will also apply to domestic actors whose activities fall outside the purview of the police or the commissioner of elections.

Officials stressed there is no intention to police routine political spin during a campaign. But NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen doubted a committee of public servants named to their posts by the Liberal government will be seen as sufficiently impartial should it drop a "political bombshell" about foreign interference into the midst of an election campaign. He urged the government to add the independent chief electoral officer — who is answerable to Parliament, not the government — to the committee.

The committee is supposed to give a heads-up to each political party when it is about to give a news conference to disclosing an incident of foreign interference. Conservative democratic reform critic Stephanie Kusie said her party wants reassurance that all parties will get the information at the same time.

Cullen also said the government needs to compel social-media giants, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, to prevent their platforms from being used to disseminate fake news, destabilize society or subvert the democratic process. The measures announced Wednesday include only Gould's assertion that the government "expects" social media companies to take concrete steps to promote "transparency, authenticity and integrity" on their platforms.

Gould, who is in discussions with social media companies, said steps would include removing fake accounts and full disclosure of political ads run on the platforms.

Facebook Canada's head of public policy, Kevin Chan, said in a statement that "these are the same expectations we hold ourselves accountable to at Facebook." He cited Facebook's "Info and Ads" tool and third party fact checking efforts.

Facebook is under criticism for recently blocking tools used by organizations like ProPublica to inform Facebook users how they are being targeted by political ads. If true, Gould said that would be disappointing.

Chan said the move was not about making ads less transparent or making Facebook less accountable. Rather, he said it was the result of a routine update to prevent unauthorized access by third parties like ad-scraping and web browser plug-ins that can be misused and "expose people's information to bad actors in ways they did not expect."

Other measures announced by the government Wednesday include:

— $7.1 million for digital, news and civic literacy programs to help Canadians be less susceptible to malicious online practices.

— Expanding the scope of the "Get Cyber Safe" public awareness campaign to educate Canadians about steps they can take to protect themselves from cyberthreats to Canada's democratic processes.

— Creation of a task force on security and intelligence threats to elections (SITE), composed of representatives of the Communications Security Establishment, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada. The task force aims to prevent covert, clandestine or criminal activities from interfering in the electoral process.

— Creation of an RCMP investigative team devoted to investigating and disrupting criminal acts related to foreign electoral interference.

— Creation of a unit within Global Affairs devoted to co-ordinating a rapid response by Canada and its G7 partners when it comes to identifying, preventing and responding to threats to democracies.

The measures come on the heels of omnibus legislation enacted shortly before Christmas, which among other things bans advocacy groups from using foreign money for political activities, requires social media platforms to keep a registry of all political ads and gives new powers to the elections commissioner to investigate violations of election laws, including a new offence of interference with a computer to influence the outcome of an election.

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