Canada elections chief says hackers aim to keep people from voting

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hackers seeking to interfere in Canada’s federal election this October want to undermine trust in voting and the democratic process rather than manipulate the result, says Canada’s chief electoral officer.

FILE PHOTOA: Stephane Perrault, nominee for Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, waits to testify on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Citing episodes of foreign interference in democratic elections in the United States in 2016 and the UK’s Brexit vote, Stephane Perrault said in an interview that Canada now is “quite alert” to the threat and has prepared extensively.

“If there is an interest in interfering, it’s most likely to be to deflate the interest in voting, undermine democracy, and undermine trust in the election rather than undermine the particular results,” Perrault said in his office on Wednesday.

Last month, Canadian security sources said they were concerned about the potential weakness in political parties’ cyber networks, particularly from the thousands of volunteers.

Perrault echoed that concern.

“Parties have been targets in the United States, the Democrats, but also in other jurisdictions,” he said. “Parties don’t necessarily have huge financial capability in terms of rebuilding their IT infrastructure.”

In 2016, Russians allegedly hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman’s emails. They were later published by WikiLeaks during the run-up to the election. The candid emails are widely considered to have hurt Clinton’s presidential bid.

To help the parties, Elections Canada has spoken with them three times in the past year and has another meeting scheduled for next week. It is acting also as an intermediary between the parties and the country’s security services, Perrault said.

Elections Canada, an independent body that manages the nation’s federal voting, has had to take a much different approach in 2019 than it did the previous vote in 2015 because of hacking concerns and social media, Perrault said.

It is running various scenarios, including simulating an election in five electoral districts earlier this year, to make sure it is prepared to handle any problems. The body has also revamped its IT network and focused on training employees how to avoid phishing and other online threats, Perrault said.

Elections Canada has also set up a team of about 20 people to monitor social media and the news outlets for incorrect information about the electoral process. The team will be using software that reads more than 20 languages and it will be fully operational on June 30.

“Our mandate is not about truth on the Internet,” Perrault said. “Our mandate is to make sure that electoral information is correct so Canadians have access to clear information on where to vote, how to register, how to cast a ballot.”

Monitoring and using social media will also help the body identify problems and quickly communicate to voters.

Perrault said he has many concerns but that they do not keep him up at night, in part because Elections Canada began to prepare for this year’s election in 2017.

“We have a secure system. It’s a paper based system. We have a healthy democracy,” he said. “I feel solid that we’ve done what we need to do.”

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Steve Orlofsky