The Plague-Ground – Are We Digitally Dominant or Submissive?

The e-mails sent to Democrats last week, seemingly from the Proud Boys, but really from Iran, made up in clarity for what they lacked in subtlety.

“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you. Good luck.”

They reminded me of our own phone scam where the Canada Revenue Agency threatens us with big fines and jail time unless we send them cash immediately. We all quickly learned to hang up (except for my friend who pushes “1” and asks whoever answers: “Are your parents still alive? Do they know their child is a thief?”).

While scams like this are easy to dismiss, cyber-hacks that strip your identity, steal your money, switch your vote, or reveal your mental illness are a different animal. On a national scale, they’ve been likened to the modern equivalent of war.

My sense is that they are war. Even though Russia has twice as many tanks as China or the US, why roar one down the 401 when you can just cut off our power and freeze our bank accounts in February?

This begs a worried question: just how good is Canada at cyber-security? I hope better than we’ve been at pandemic-security. Does our ‘niceness’ prevent us from defending ourselves against people who are far craftier playing offense than we are at defense?

It seems not.

When it comes to cyber power Canada is nowhere in offense, as expected.

But we rank Number 5 in defense, behind China, France, Netherlands and the US and ahead of…well, everyone else including Japan, Britain and Germany.

This is a big surprise, no?

Even my source for this information, The Economist, headlined its article last month “A new global ranking of cyber-power throws up some surprises.”

Another surprise is Israel’s overall ranking of 11, and all the more so compared to Canada’s overall ranking of 8. Aren’t they the Masters of Cyber? Didn’t they infect the computers driving Iran’s nuclear program and make them spin wildly out of control? The answer, of course, is the Israelis are so secretive that even the cyber-rankers don’t really know what they’re up to.

The National Cyber Power Index measures both public sector and private sector defense. Ottawa hasn’t been perfect: in August, over 11,000 tax accounts were hacked from the CRA in Ottawa. Nor is our private sector immune. In fact, 2019 was “an awesome year” for cyber-attackers stealing information from our companies, including medical information from 15 million clients of Lifelabs. Which is 40% of our population.

Canada’s banks are especially vulnerable because they’re so big in customers and assets and so few in number. The Big Five control 85% of all banking in Canada, whereas in the US, there are over 5,000 different banks.

But maybe one reason Canada ranks so high in cyber-security is that it’s a kind of warfare driven by brains and creativity more than by might. In cyber, being smart and crafty wins more than being big and hidebound.

As The Economist report noted, “In 2014, the small but world-class group of hackers working for Dutch intelligence managed to penetrate a computer network used by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service – including CCTV cameras in the building – allowing them to watch as the Russians hacked America’s State Department.”

Canada already ranks in the top handful of countries when it comes to cyber-defense. Maybe we should encourage Ottawa to do more to own this podium.

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6 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Are We Digitally Dominant or Submissive?”

  1. Check out YouTube. There are a ton of funny videos of folks that keep the “IRS and CRA” Scammers on the phone, effectively trolling them. While I was writing this post I got a call from the “justice department.” Apparently I’m in biiiig trouble….lol.

    1. Leah — I’m so tempted to push that button, but something tells me that if I do, a piano will fall five storeys on to my head.
      That makes sense, right?

  2. This is a very good and topical issue to bring up Bob. Are you familiar with the terrific work done by the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto, spearheaded by Professor Ron Deibert. They focus on the study of digital threats to civil society. See Wikipedia for their accomplishments

    1. Adam — I’ve been following Deibert for a long time and when the fog lifts would love to have him as a RamsayTalks speaker.
      This is another one of those “Who knew?” moments for the University of Toronto who the world beyond our borders constantly

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