by Jim Bronskill|
Canada's intelligence agency is investigating the threat posed by cyber-warfare to electric power grids and key computer networks.
Newly released documents show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has launched a probe to identify terrorists and foreign governments that could wreak havoc with the country's vital electronic systems.
An "information operations" assault could have the same devastating effect as the ice storm that ripped through Eastern Canada a year ago, says a CSIS document released under the Access to Information Act.
"Nature may have been the culprit this time," says the article by a CSIS analyst. "But another time it could be an attack from a computer hacker or terrorist group which knocks out the systems controlling the distribution of electricity."
The CSIS investigation of information operations is being led by the service's Economic Security and Proliferation Issues unit, set up several years ago to catch economic spies and limit the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. A new breed of terrorist may have since emerged -- one who uses the computer mouse instead of explosives to inflict serious damage by hacking into a computer system and altering, destroying, or stealing information.
"Due to the changing global security environment, it is something that the service is concerned about," said Marcia Wetherup, a CSIS spokeswoman. "One just has to look at the huge technological advance in the last decade. The global threat environment does evolve, and we try to monitor that to ensure that we are fulfilling our mandate in safeguarding Canadian national security interests."
The service's investigation of the information attack threat is revealed in a two-part study of economic espionage by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog over CSIS. Edited copies of the top secret documents were obtained by Southam News.
"CSIS informed us that it was preparing to investigate the threat to Canada's security from information operations," says the SIRC study, completed last April.
It notes CSIS and several other federal agencies, including the Defence Department, the RCMP, and Treasury Board, had already formed the Interdepartmental Committee on Information Operations to co-ordinate efforts in the area. In April, 1997, the committee identified 20 federal organizations that should be involved in the discussions.
"It appeared that the federal government saw information operations as a high priority, and one that had the potential to affect many departments and agencies," says the SIRC study.
A Senate committee report warned earlier this month that, despite federal awareness of the threat, additional steps should be taken immediately to assess, prevent, and respond to cyber-attacks on Canadian government agencies and businesses.
U.S. President Bill Clinton called last Friday for $2.8-billion to combat terrorism, including establishment of "intrusion detection monitors" to help fend off a cyber-attack.
A number of hacker organizations with political agendas, including the Hong Kong Blondes, a group of Chinese dissidents, are said to be based in Canada. The Canadian military is paying close attention to computer security as it makes sensitive networks more open to take advantage of the Internet and other new tools, said Colonel Randy Alward of the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group.