Canada’s Spy Chief Warns of Economic Espionage

The head of Canada’s spy agency said state-sponsored economic espionage and cyber threats now pose a potentially greater challenge to the country than terrorism, warning that foreign actors are already targeting the domestic technology and telecommunications sectors.

David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS, said foreign interference and espionage are “the greatest threat” to the country’s prosperity and national interest. He also warned of the possibility of foreign interference in the country’s national election next fall.

“Plainly said: there is state-sponsored espionage in Canada,” said Mr. Vigneault Tuesday, according to published remarks at a luncheon hosted by the Economic Club of Canada. “No matter how it’s done or who’s behind it, economic espionage represents a long-term threat to Canada’s economy and to our prosperity.”

His remarks avoided citing which states are operating covertly in Canada. However, Mr. Vigneault said  sectors where CSIS has observed increased activity by state-sponsored actors include artificial intelligence, quantum technology, 5G mobile networks and biopharmaceuticals.

The remarks come at a time when the U.S. is trying to persuade Western allies not to buy telecom equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co., due to fears the company’s technology could be used for spying purposes. Huawei has long denied these assertions. Canada has opted not to join the U.S., Australia and most recently New Zealand in banning Huawei, arguing the company operates under strict constraints in the country.

Mr. Vigneault’s comments mark an important shift, according to a former national security analyst in the Canadian government, because the head of Canada’s spy agency gave threats to economic prosperity and national interest more prominence than public safety. The timing, less than a year before a national election, is also noteworthy, said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University. In his remarks, Mr. Vigneault said CSIS and others “are closely monitoring any attempt from hostile states to influence our democratic process.”

“That’s significant because it suggests that CSIS suspects that it is likely there will be interference in the 2019 elections and that he is warning us about that,” Prof. Carvin said.

Two years ago, election systems in U.S. states across the country were probed by suspected Russian hackers, and one state, Illinois, had its voter-registration database breached. Last March, Canada expelled four Russian diplomats from the country, in part in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. which western allies said was likely ordered by Moscow. At the time of the expulsion, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed Russia for trying to discredit his country’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, and suggested those efforts played a role in the decision.

Mr. Trudeau will seek re-election in a vote set for October 2019.

Write to Paul Vieira at

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