Canada’s cyber security and the changing threat landscape

My article, Canada’s cyber security and the changing threat landscape has just been published online by Critical Studies on Security.

Broadly, it grapples with what cyber security has come to mean in the Canadian context. The article deals partly with Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy, the operations of the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre (CCIRC) between 2011 and 2013 (a time of great concern over hacktivism [Anonymous] and Advanced Persistent Threats [China]), and what we can say about Canada’s cyber security orientation in the “post-Snowden era”. It is based on publicly-available texts and several years of Access to Information requests (the requests were informal, for documents already released to other people, giving me several thousand pages to work with).

What is cyber security, and why should we care?

Cyber security emerged from a narrow set of concerns around safeguarding information and networks, but in recent years it has become intimately tied to foreign and domestic political objectives. This means that cyber security cannot be defined and delimited in the same way as the field of information security (as protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information). Instead, cyber security is a collective endeavor, typically tied to the larger project of national security, but also encompassing a broader set of social and ethical concerns. This is why hateful messages sent by teens are now treated as a cyber security problem, while Canada’s government fails to acknowledge the international cyber threat posed by its foreign allies.

One of the key effects of cyber security strategies and classifications is that they specify the boundaries of what is to be secured. As the line between ‘cyber’ and ‘non-cyber’ continues to blur, the scope of cyber security’s concerns can expand to cover new kinds of threats. If it is true, as the opening of Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy 2010 declares, that our “personal and professional lives have gone digital”, that we now “live, work, and play in cyberspace”, then cyberspace is not just a new domain to be secured, but a fundamental part of our lived reality. This means that it is now possible to conceive of cyber threats as existential threats of the highest order, but also that the project of cyber security will have deepening implications for our daily lives. Some of these implications can only be discussed by referencing the work of security professionals – work which typically takes place out of public view.

Operational and Technocratic Discourse

My article began as a work of discourse analysis, but over time I turned increasingly to international relations (IR) and what has been called the “Paris School” of security studies. I found that previous analyses of cyber security discourse, influenced by the Copenhagen School, focused largely on public discourse, and how political actors work to get cyber security on the political agenda (as a response to new, existential threats). The Paris School meanwhile, emphasizes that new security issues can arise and be defined in the hidden world of security professionals and their technocratic practices. The volumes of internal threat reports, alerts, and government emails accessible through Access to Information became a rich source for this technocratic and operational discourse, providing a sense of how the moving parts of cyber security fit together in practice.


Hacktivism is an interesting threat category to consider because, at least in Canada, it has never been subject to visible politicization. Unlike cyberbullying, no new laws have been proposed to deal with hacktivists, and public officials have avoided referencing the threat in their public proclamations. The Government seems more willing to deal with hacktivism quietly than to engage in a public fight against Anonymous, or to publicly condemn tactics that some see as a legitimate form of protest.

Nevertheless, hacktivism has become a major preoccupation for Canadian security agencies, as evident through volumes of operational discourse, including detailed reports and responses to hacktivist campaigns. Where cyberbullying can be reduced to a problem of ethical conduct, common forms of hacktivism such as DDoS reduce to a technical problem. A DDoS attack becomes hacktivism by virtue of its political motivation, and not its methods. While DDoS actions have typically been handled by CCIRC and CTEC as individual incidents, the operational threat category of hacktivism makes these events legible as part of a larger and pathological social trend, and the growing concern with hacktivism since 2010 indicates cyber security’s opposition to disruptive forms of online activism and politically-motivated hacking.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

As actors define and redefine cyber security’s terminology, they produce new conceptions, repurpose old ones, and experiment with metaphors. Sometimes, a term becomes a prolific ‘buzzword’, securing regular usage in cyber security discourse, and also inevitably becoming a point of contention. One of the best recent examples is the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT). This is the threat category that best represents cyber security’s oblique treatment of international affairs and the new strategic stakes of cyber security. Where hacktivism is the intersection of cyber security and protest in operational discourse, APTs bring cyber security into opposition against state actors. The term usually refers to a well-resourced threat actor willing to devote considerable effort to compromise a particular target, and is often understood to mean a state-backed attacker – sometimes becoming simply a shorthand for “China”.

In tracing the emergence and proliferation of this new threat category, it is possible to get some sense of the multiple constituents and channels of cyber security discourse. In this case, a category emerged in the operational discourse of the US military, spread rapidly through the North American security industry, and was adopted for internal use by CCIRC in the aftermath of a major security breach in 2011. Along the way it was used to classify a growing number of intrusions and data breaches, sell security products and services, and make intelligible a world of online geopolitical contestation. APTs could be invoked to specify a threat, while eliding the attribution problem and preserving nominal ambiguity in the international political arena. For CCIRC, APTs became an operational threat category at a time when Chinese hackers were widely suspected of compromising Canadian government systems, and the term proliferated into public discourse through Mandiant’s reporting of Chinese cyber espionage in 2013. Not long after, the Snowden disclosures had a dramatic impact on how we understand and talk about cyber security.

After Snowden

One of the most important revelations of the Snowden documents has been that the project of cyber security (at least as interpreted by signals intelligence agencies like NSA, GCHQ and CSE) can include compromising the very digital infrastructure it is tasked to protect. Domestic cyber security programs can become an “advanced persistent threat” – a term once reserved for foreign hackers. Given these developments, it is worthwhile to reflect on how the governmental project of cyber security has evolved in recent years, and what cyber security has come to mean. This is particularly important in Canada, a country closely implicated in US cyber security efforts, but where post-Snowden commentary has made comparatively little impact.

The lack of visible concern by Canada’s government about the security threat posed by its closest allies (a threat that Canada has apparently facilitated), speaks to how foreign policy shapes the nation’s cyber security priorities. It also sends the dangerous message that while Canada is unable to clearly define a vision of what it is trying to secure, cyber security is somehow compatible with pervasive surveillance and widespread hacking.

State cyber security agencies work to guard us from new threats, but seem blind to the possibility that they or their partners might also threaten our security. To paraphrase Google’s chairman, an attack is an attack, whether it comes from China or the NSA. For Canada’s CSE and the other Five Eyes members, the equivalence may not be as clear. If cyber security is subordinated to national security interests and compatible with government hacking, then threats will continue to be defined very differently by those inside and outside government. In addition to a broadening scope for cyber security’s concerns, the current trend is one of growing division between government cyber security efforts and more clearly circumscribed approaches to information security by private companies and civil society.

The idea that cyber security can be compatible with hacking domestic companies and maintaining vulnerabilities in commonly-used technologies might be seen as a continuation of the exceptional measures justified by 9/11. But more fundamentally, it reflects the technocratic imperatives of agencies tasked with gaining and maintaining access to communications infrastructure. The Five Eyes’ objectives go far beyond countering terrorism, and surreptitious access to communications infrastructure is increasingly part of the larger cyber security project. This dangerous vision of cyber security has evolved in secret, establishing procedures for who can be targeted, what can be collected, and where compromising security might help to make us safer. We did not learn of these measures through visible political discourse or securitizing rhetoric (the traditional focus of the Copenhagen School), but through operational documents and presentation slides from closed meetings of security professionals.

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