Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee. JON ELSWICK/AP

By Jan Neutze | Published by Vancouver Sun 

April 14, 2019

Jan Neutze: Defending Canadian democracy from cyber threats

Cyberattacks on civilians, businesses and governments around the world have become more frequent and increasingly sophisticated, with nation-state hackers moving beyond traditional financial gain and military espionage, to carrying out attacks against our democratic processes and the core institutions that underpin society.

The Communication Security Establishment recently warned that Canada’s fall elections could “very likely” face foreign interference attempts. Moreover, the CSE report contends that over the past decade more than 40 nations have seen their democratic processes targeted through cyber means.

In the United States, France and Germany, we have seen first-hand the impact of disinformation campaigns by adversaries, both foreign and domestic, and we have seen this type of malicious activity continue. Using social media and the internet, attackers can distort and manipulate perception and seek to stoke partisanship and conflict in some communities.

Nation states have also launched cyber attacks against democratic institutions. Leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, we saw state-sponsored attacks targeting U.S. Senate offices. And in recent months, we saw targeted cyber attacks on European think-tanks such as the Aspen Institute in Europe and the German Council on Foreign Relations, among others. Microsoft took action to disrupt these attacks with our customers, and we worked to shut-down the infrastructure that attackers were using to target these institutions.

With the growing nature of nation-state threats against democracy, we recognize our responsibility as a defender and first responder to attacks online. In April 2018, we launched the Defending Democracy Program as part of our ongoing work to protect customers and to promote cyber diplomacy around the world. To address these threats and to scale our program globally, we’ve also been working with many stakeholders from government, industry and civil society.

To help defending against disinformation campaigns, we’ve joined with NewsGuard Technologies to enhance digital media literacy and confront disinformation in the online space. We’re also working with Oxford University’s Internet Institute to shed light on computational propaganda targeting elections in democratic countries around the world.

To help protect campaigns and elections from hacking, we created AccountGuard, a state-of-the art cybersecurity service that leverages the resources Microsoft uses with our largest corporate and government customers. It is provided free of charge to campaigns, candidates, think thanks and political organizations using Office 365 in Canada and 17 additional democratic countries. Those who opt-in receive threat detection and notification of nation-state cyber attacks as well as guidance on cybersecurity best practices.

While the technology industry has the first responsibility to keep our customers safe, technology alone will not solve the cybersecurity threats democracies face. Governments need to play a critical role and Canada has demonstrated thoughtful leadership in both recognizing the significance of these cyber threats and embracing broad international collaboration to address them. This was clear during Canada’s role as the 2018 G7 Presidency when it brought the Charlevoix Commitment on Defending Democracy from Foreign Threats to fruition, when joining the French government’s Paris Peace Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace in November 2018, and in its innovative and important appointment of a Minister of Democratic Institutions — the only position of its kind in the world.

Microsoft looks forward to working with key stakeholders and institutions in Canada on efforts to defend its democratic processes, as we continue to explore how technology can help preserve the voices and votes of all people.

Jan Neutze is the senior director of digital diplomacy and head of the cybersecurity and democracy team at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10 to 18.

This article was originally published by Vancouver Sun.