Disinformation, foreign interference threatens Canada’s electoral system, warns the watchdog

Written by Javed Iqbal

Disinformation and foreign interference are two of the biggest threats facing Canada’s electoral system, and it will require everyone to work together to counter them, Canada’s top election watchdog says.

In an interview with CBC News, Yves Côté spoke to mark the end of his 10-year term as Commissioner for Elections in Canada, saying that online disinformation is one of the biggest challenges he has faced, noting that it can be hard to be optimistic about the future.

“I think there are all kinds of challenges lurking, and some of them might get worse as we move forward with time,” Côté said.

However, he noted that there is a solution if different groups can work together.

“No one should just get discouraged and give up the fight or give up the project,” he said.

“I think a lot of people have to contribute, and I think it’s a job for politicians of all kinds, institutions, media, academics. It’s all kinds of people who have to come together and say that this is a danger. “

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Disinformation against disturbing electoral system

Côté said he was particularly concerned about disinformation attacks against the Canadian electoral system.

“When people try to convince others that the way votes or ballots are counted does not work,” Côté said.

“When they try to misinform people about where they can vote, how they can vote or where, they try to raise issues with the professionalism or competence of, for example, Elections Canada or our own office for reasons that have no basis for them. “I think that’s very, very difficult.”

Côté said he has negotiated agreements with companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook that help streamline the process of gathering information when his office has to investigate a complaint, but he said he has no agreements with other “foreign agencies”. “as Tencent, a company that owns the popular Chinese-language app WeChat.

Côté’s departure at the end of this month comes amid these new technological challenges, which probably could not have been imagined 10 years ago, when headlines were dominated by the scandal over the repression of robocall voters during the 2011 election, in which voters in several rider received automatic phone calls with recorded messages leading them to the wrong place to vote.

His successor, Caroline Simard, begins Aug. 15.

Foreign intervention ‘difficult to investigate’

In addition to the challenges posed by disinformation, Côté said Simard will have to contend with the threat of foreign interference in elections.

“For us as an enforcement body, it poses all kinds of challenges, especially if these foreign countries do not have good diplomatic relations with us,” Côté explained.

“It’s very difficult to investigate, very difficult to get evidence that you might need to build a case, and then of course it’s very difficult to bring these people to Canadian courts, provided you were able to collect the evidence you needed to do that. “

In a recent interview with CBC Radio’s The House, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole revealed that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) informed his party during the recent election trying on WeChat to influence the race in a series of rides with false information.

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Côté said his office has relations with CSIS, the Canadian Security Agency, the RCMP and various police forces.

“We have certainly heard that there have been campaigns like this or allegations that there have been campaigns like this and that is a topic that we are very interested in,” Côté said.

In addition to the trials that Canada Elections is aware of and may suggest, he said things are also happening under the radar that they are not aware of.

“There are the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. So it’s a very complex thing where we have a role to play.”

Ensuring the privacy of voters

Another challenge is to ensure the privacy of voters.

Currently, federal political parties are exempt from federal privacy laws. Côté said he received several complaints that political parties were abusing voters’ private information.

“Given the framework that exists at the moment, there was not really anything we could do because the action is so open and so generous or so not restrictive enough in terms of what political parties do.”

Côté pointed to new legislation in Quebec that will subject parties and candidates to privacy rules, something he hopes to see the federal government adopt. He said he also supports a recommendation by Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault to limit hate groups in forming recognized political parties.

Some voters have previously said they did not want to be included on the electoral roll out of concern that their information could be accessed by individuals or groups that promote hatred.

Ultimately, Côté feels his tenure has been successful, increasing the independence of the Commissioner for the Canadian Election Office and achieving changes such as the introduction of administrative monetary sanctions as an alternative to prosecution for some violations of election law.

“We have a good team and we have definitely a Commissioner, a future Commissioner who is highly competent and highly qualified to take over from me and take office to higher and better places.”

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Javed Iqbal

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