By: Alex Boutilier, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canada plans to take steps to “strengthen” its cyber-warfare arsenal, according to documents released by the Department of National Defence.
The documents are a rare public admission from National Defence that it is developing offensive cyber-weapons in addition to tools to defend against such attacks.
“Cyber ... (is) increasingly prominent among the security and defence challenges facing Canada and its allies,” read the documents, posted to the department’s website.
“(In 2017) we will advance our research in the future of cyber warfare to improve and strengthen both our defensive and offensive capabilities.”
There is some debate over what actually constitutes a “cyber-weapon” or an act of “cyber-war.” The most commonly cited example is a virus dubbed Stuxnet, widely attributed to the United States, which in 2010 sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program before spreading to the wider Internet.
More recently, Russia was accused of launching a cyberattack against Ukraine’s power grid in 2015, causing a blackout in the capital city of Kyiv.
When it comes to cyber-warfare, the Canadian government typically likes to talk about defence more than offensive capabilities. But that appears to be changing, with former members of Canada’s defence and intelligence agencies openly musing about future cyber-war.
In an interview with Postmedia earlier this month, Brig.-Gen Paul Rutherford said Canada will be sending “cyber-warriors” to Latvia this June to protect that country’s networks from Russian cyberattacks.
“First and foremost, we recognize cyber as a domain of warfare … We are constantly under attack,” Rutherford told Postmedia.
“We want to bring people into the trade to become what I call cyber-warriors.”
The documents posted by the department state the Canadian Forces will create a new military occupation called “Cyber Operators” to bring in employees with the skills required to conduct complex cyberattacks and defence.
“It’s maybe about time,” said Alex Wilner, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University.
“I think implicitly what (National Defence) is saying here is that in Canada we see the cyber-domain as a military domain. That’s the way the Americans see it, that’s the way the Russians see it.”
Other academics studying these issues stress that caution is needed before Canada fully embraces cyber-warfare — and note the challenges in even defining what “cyber-war” is.
“Cyber-war is challenging all of our previously held notions of warfare,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former intelligence analyst who also teaches at Carleton. “Who is and isn’t a combatant? What is an armed attack?”
The department raised the question of cyber-warfare in their sweeping Defence Review project, the results of which are expected later this year.
Wesley Wark, a professor focusing on security and intelligence issues at the University of Ottawa, said he read the documents as a go-slow approach on these issues
“Clearly there is a feeling that this is a future for Canadian military operations that the (Canadian Forces) is going to have to prepare for,” Wark said in an email. “But best that it do so openly rather than in the shadows.”
Wark told the Star in September that escalation and proliferation of cyber-weapons was also a concern — a point that even John Adams, the former head of the Communications Security Establishment who has pushed for the Canadian government to prepare for cyberwarfare, conceded at the time.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was travelling Thursday, and was not available for an interview. In a statement, his spokesperson said any use of cyber-weapons would be “approved by the government on a mission-by-mission basis,” and would adhere to domestic and international law.
In a statement, the Department of National Defence called developing a cyber-component a “key priority” for the Canadian Forces.
“As cyberspace evolves and expands, it is critical that we look to the future and determine the optimal approaches to strengthen our ability to defend mission-critical military systems, building the future cyber force, and integrating cyber operations into broader military operations,” wrote DND spokesperson Daniel LeBouthillier.