Online posts designed to provoke emotional reactions and to amplify them are a specialty of hackers, warn security experts. (iStock)

Cyber threats to elections examined

Canadians go to the polls in 2019 to elect the federal government, and parliamentary hearings are underway to look at possible online interference. The concern is not so much for the voting system itself.

Paper ballots system deemed safer

“The good news is, at the federal level at least, the cyber threats are actually fairly low to the voting system itself,” says Aleksander Essex, an assistant professor of software engineering at Western University. “The reason is that we…use a hand-counted paper ballot. So, there’s not really that cyber conduit for a remote, state-level attacker to sort of reach inside and start trying to change results.”

Paper ballots are used in Canada’s federal election, while some other levels of government have people vote electronically. (iStock)

Politicians more likely to be targeted

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s electronic spy agency, has made a similar assessment and that holds that it is politicians, political parties and the media which are more at risk. It told a House of Commons committee on Oct. 18, 2018 that it has seen an increase in cyber threats and the targets are politicians and political parties. The activity involves the use of fake accounts on social media to amplify messages.

Pause before retweeting, says expert

Essex advises the public to beware. “When you feel outraged by a headline, you really need to stop for a moment and consider the possibility that there is somebody out there that is purposefully trying to deploy what’s called sentiment amplification against you.” He suggests people pause and think twice before hitting the retweet button. If the post is from a media outlet that they don’t recognise, he suggests they look to see if the information appears elsewhere and is reliably corroborated.

New agency mandated

The CSE has held talks with political parties on how to shield against cyber threats and offers further advice on its website.

The Canadian government has set up a special agency with experts from its own information technology services, its Public Safety department and the CSE specifically to examine cyber security.  It expects to issue a report on potential threat to next year’s federal election next year.


Prof. Aleksander Essex says hackers are more of a threat to politicians and political parties than they are to Canada’s electoral system.

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