OTTAWA — CSIS Director David Vigneault confirmed that Canada’s spy agency discovered a Canadian company’s technology was unknowingly being used in Russian drones to kill Ukrainians, sparking a “very difficult discussion” with the company.
Speaking during a conference on “Emerging Threats, Innovation, and Security” alongside his U.S., U.K., Australian and New Zealand counterparts at Stanford University Tuesday, Vigneault said Russia is using front companies and agents to skirt Western sanctions and trade barriers.
“One of the things we tried to do with the private sector is to say, ‘Be on the lookout because now what they cannot do from the front door they’re going to do it through the backdoor,’” he told attendees.
He said that his agency discovered at one point that guidance technology from a Canadian company was being used in Russian drones to kill Ukrainians as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion.
“We had a very difficult discussion with a business leader in Canada where we essentially were able to show that person that we had discovered … that some components of high-tech guidance had been used in Russian drones to kill Ukrainians, absolutely unbeknownst to that business leader,” he said.
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In a statement provided after the panel discussion, CSIS spokesperson Eric Balsam pointed to the agency’s 2022 annual report that noted Canadian technology had been found in Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that Russia used against Ukrainian civilians. The report did not specify which type of equipment was found.
Vigneault also said one of the biggest impediments to his agency’s work is internal culture and “finding a way for our officers or our experts to think differently.”
“That cultural reticence from our organization is something we need to break,” he admitted. CSIS is working to break out of its “silos” and engage with more external institutions, such as universities, research centres and venture capitalists, he said.
But that has been challenging too, namely because there is a “lot of stigma” attached to what CSIS does. The agency has to find concrete ways to explain the threat from Canada’s adversaries like China and Russia because it’s not enough to “cry wolf,” Vigneault told the audience.
Overall, the threat China poses to the Western world and members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) dominated the conversation.
According to Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, the Chinese government is engaged in the “most sustained scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and acquisition of expertise that is unprecedented in human history.”
“The problem with that is they’re engaged in wholesale intellectual property theft and the acquisition of expertise,” he said.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) head Christopher Wray told attendees that China’s state-run hacking program vastly exceeds those of the rest of the world.
“They have a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined. Combine that with human intelligence operations” and China is deploying intellectual property theft tools “at scale that the likes of which we’ve never seen,” Wray warned.
His concerns were echoed by British Security Service (MI-5) Director General Ken McCallum, who said Five Eyes agencies are seeing intellectual property theft rise at an unprecedented rate.
He also said that the breakneck speed at which artificial intelligence is developing is giving new and increasingly potent hacking tools to cyber threat actors.
“There is real concern amongst our organizations that AI, over time and potentially sooner than we might think, will give various of our adversaries, both sophisticated adversaries and less sophisticated adversaries, new ideas and new access to dangerous knowledge,” he said.
He also told attendees that MI-5 collects “thousands and thousands” of hours of audio data in “lots of interesting places” every week that it uses to glean knowledge and train AI.
“You can imagine the tiny microphones that we might plant lawfully in certain locations to achieve that. But what that means is we end up with a lot of audio products that we need quickly to translate into knowledge that is searchable. And the best means of doing that is to have AI scan across the material,” he said.
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