State actors have done ‘significant harm’ to Canadian companies, says head of spy agency

The head of Canada’s spy agency said today Canadian companies in almost all sectors of the economy have been targeted by hostile foreign actors — and named Russia and China as two of his main sources of concern.

“The threat from hostile activity by state actors in all its forms represents a significant danger to Canada’s prosperity and sovereignty,” said David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in his first public speech in three years.

“Our investigations reveal that this threat has unfortunately caused significant harm to Canadian companies.”

Vigneault said Canada’s biopharmaceutical, health, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, ocean technology and aerospace sectors face particularly severe threat activity because they work largely within academia and small start-ups.

“They have been compromised and have suffered losses from human and cyber-enabled threats,” he said in a virtual speech to the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“CSIS has observed persistent and sophisticated state-sponsored threat activity for many years now and we continue to see a rise in the frequency and sophistication of this threat activity.”

Vigneault’s speech builds off his 2018 address sounding the alarm over economic espionage — a growing source of concern for the intelligence agency, which historically has focused on countering violent extremism.

WATCH | Head of CSIS on foreign states threatening national security

Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) David Vigneault says the greatest strategic threat to Canada’s national security is hostile activities by foreign states. 3:02

“While violent extremism remains an ongoing threat to our safety and a significant preoccupation for CSIS, the greatest strategic threat to Canada’s national security comes from hostile activities by foreign states,” Vigneault said today. 

“Historically, spies were focused on obtaining Canadian political, military and diplomatic secrets. While these secrets are still attractive, today our adversaries are more focused on intellectual property and advanced research held on computer systems in small start-ups, corporate boardrooms, or university labs across the country.”

State actors target employees, students

The director singled out Russia and China as bad actors — another shift for the intelligence community in the past few years.

“It is no secret that we are most concerned about the actions by the governments of countries like Russia and China. But we should also not discount that threat activity evolves and can originate from anywhere in the world,” he said. 

Hostile actors are known to target employees, former employees, students, professors, contractors and business associates to gain access to an organization’s IT systems, he said.

“An insider acting at the behest of a threat actor can compromise a system and cause damage, or open a backdoor to allow access from across the street or across the ocean. They can steal information outright, and walk it out the door on a flash drive,” Vigneault said. 

While Vigneault has talked about the covert actions of Russia and China in front of parliamentary committees, his comments today mark the first time he has named the two countries in a speech.

WATCH | Head of CSIS says he’s ‘most concerned’ by the actions of Russia and China

Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) David Vigneault says the organization is most concerned by the actions of the governments of China and Russia. 2:16

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