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China, Russia targeting Canada’s artificial intelligence know-how, CSIS warns

Report says Canada’s innovation and economic advancement are vulnerable to foreign forces
CSIS coasters are pictured in Ottawa in a 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CSIS

Canada’s spy service warns that adversaries will turn to espionage and foreign interference tactics to target the country’s increasingly important artificial-intelligence sector.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says in a newly released analytical brief that countries including China and Russia can be expected to “pursue Canada’s AI through all available vectors” — from state-sponsored investment to the use of covert operatives.

The analysis by the spy agency’s intelligence assessments branch, marked CSIS Eyes Only, was completed in July 2021 but only recently released to The Canadian Press in response to an access-to-information request filed in October of that year.

It is the latest signal from the intelligence community that Canada’s technological innovation and resulting economic advancement are vulnerable to foreign forces out to co-opt or pilfer valuable research.

CSIS says emerging artificial intelligence capabilities and machine-learning tools are seen as key to developing ways to reduce plastic in the oceans, find a vaccine to treat the next looming pandemic, stem emissions that cause climate change and find safe navigation methods for self-driving cars.

The analysis notes artificial intelligence is a priority for Canada, considered central to Ottawa’s domestic innovation and prosperity goals.

“However, many other nations, including hostile state actors, have established their own national Al strategies and goals,” the brief says. “Some of these countries, particularly China and Russia, will resort to espionage and foreign-influenced activity to advance their national interests, at Canada’s expense.”

As a result, artificial intelligence has been reflected in the federal government’s intelligence priorities for several years, CSIS says.

It finds Canada faces two main types of threats related to artificial intelligence.

The first entails espionage and foreign interference in attempts to gain access to proprietary Al technology and know-how via trade (such as exports and reverse engineering), state-sponsored foreign investment, joint ventures (including transfer of technology), cyberespionage, intelligence operatives, insider threats, talent spotting and recruitment.

“Much of those efforts are aimed at Canada’s academia and vulnerable startups, which are responsible for the majority of our Al innovation but which also represent a permissive espionage environment.”

The second threat involves safety and security risks to individual Canadians and the country’s Armed Forces when adversaries obtain and use AI capabilities for intelligence or military purposes.

Aaron Shull, managing director and general counsel at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said he agrees with CSIS’s assessment, but would go even further.

Shull cited other foreign threats in this realm, including AI-enabled cyberattacks that swiftly find gaps in computer code, use of facial recognition and surveillance by authoritarian regimes, automated bots that spread disinformation in cyberspace and dependence on international supply chains that are partly controlled by adversaries.

“I think we need a full-scale review of our national security and intelligence capabilities and services, our legislative structures, and take a more strategic view in terms of where we want the country to be 20 years from now,” Shull said in an interview.

Canada could then make the needed investments and legislative changes to get there, he said.

“Other countries have their elbows up, and they’re trying to take what’s ours.”

CSIS says the importance of protecting Canadian artificial intelligence and the Big Data underpinning it goes beyond simply protecting the privacy of citizens, and involves “securing the future of our nation against the actions of hostile state actors with the intent to leverage their capabilities against us.”

The brief stresses the importance of Big Data to artificial intelligence, saying the more data a country possesses, the more it can be fed into that country’s Al systems, accelerating their capabilities, making better decisions faster and ensuring a leg-up on the competition.

“This will determine the victor in the modern world,” the brief says.

“All nations will find themselves on a grid ranging from ignorance to control, based on how much data they have and how fast they can process it.”

The West faces “the threat of growing authoritarian dominance of the internet” by Beijing, given the high number of internet users in China and a government focused on gaining complete and centralized collection and retention of data, CSIS says.

“Moreover, China houses acres of data centres that store data from around the world, obtained both licitly and illicitly. This makes the data that China possesses valuable in both quantity and variety,” the brief adds.

“One can confidently say this gives China an advantage in the Al industry, and the decisions that follow.”


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