Generative AI and the Tenuous State of Election Security in Canada


In an era where technology is evolving at an unprecedented pace, the landscape of election security is facing a new, formidable challenge. The latest biannual report from Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE) reveals a concerning surge in the use of generative AI systems by threat actors to influence elections globally, with a particular emphasis on Canada. As the availability of synthetic content generation technology grows, the CSE anticipates a rise in cyber threats, making it increasingly challenging to detect and combat these sophisticated manipulations. This article delves into the key findings of the report, shedding light on the growing threat of generative AI in election interference and the potential implications for Canada's democratic processes.

The Rise of Synthetic Content

The CSE report underscores a noticeable uptick in synthetic content, including deepfake images, videos, and news related to elections, since its 2021 iteration. This surge is attributed to the heightened accessibility of technologies enabling the creation of synthetic content. The report suggests that the next two years will witness a substantial increase in AI synthetic content generation, posing a severe challenge to the detection of manipulated information. As a consequence, the trust of Canadians in online political information is likely to erode, creating an environment susceptible to misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

Foreign Adversaries and Generative AI

According to the CSE report, cyber threat activities targeting democratic processes are perceived by adversaries as an effective and relatively low-risk method of influencing policy outcomes in Canada. Foreign actors, especially from Russia and China, are expected to leverage generative AI to target Canada's federal election in the coming years. The report warns of an impending surge in cyber incidents during the next federal election, emphasizing the need for robust cybersecurity measures to safeguard the integrity of the democratic process.

The Landscape of Cyber Threats

The CSE, a vital component of the Defence Department, is tasked with protecting federal IT networks and plays a pivotal role in intercepting and breaking foreign codes. Notably, the report highlights that a significant portion (85%) of cyber threat activity targeting national elections in the past year could not be attributed to state-sponsored actors. This anonymity is a testament to the sophisticated techniques employed by threat actors, ranging from obfuscating their origins to outsourcing attacks to third parties, including commercial public relations or marketing firms.

Identifiable Threats: Russia and China

Of the identifiable cyber threat activity, a majority (15%) is linked to Russia and China. The report outlines various malicious activities, such as attempted distributed denial of service attacks, attacks against election authority websites, unauthorized access to voter information, and vulnerability scanning of online election systems. While the federal elections in Canada rely on paper ballots, the report acknowledges that some municipalities have introduced online voting, emphasizing the need for heightened cybersecurity measures across all levels of government.

Global Implications and Future Targets

Looking beyond Canada, the report suggests that Russia and China will continue to be the primary perpetrators of cyber threat activity targeting foreign elections. The focus of these adversarial campaigns will be on countries strategically significant to them. With upcoming European elections in 2023 and 2024, the report speculates that Russia, in particular, may target Europe due to its military and economic importance, especially in relation to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Mitigating the Threat: Cybersecurity Measures

In response to the escalating threat landscape, the CSE's outward-facing department, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, has published valuable resources to fortify election cybersecurity. The Cyber Security Guide for Campaign Teams and Cyber Security Advice for Political Candidates offer practical insights and recommendations to mitigate the risks associated with cyber threats and manipulative AI. These resources underscore the importance of proactive measures, collaboration, and continuous vigilance in safeguarding the democratic process.

As the digital realm becomes increasingly intertwined with the democratic process, the threat of generative AI in election interference cannot be understated. The CSE's report serves as a stark warning, urging stakeholders at all levels – from government agencies to political candidates – to prioritize cybersecurity measures. The evolution of technology demands a proactive and adaptive response to ensure the resilience of democratic institutions against emerging threats. As Canada prepares for a national public inquiry into foreign interference, the findings of this report underscore the critical need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach to secure the future of democratic processes in an era dominated by rapid technological advancements.

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