Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs is still recovering from a computer network disruption that lasted for days and a security expert says the working hypothesis is it was a cyberattack.
Networks at the Department of Global Affairs had not been fully restored to normal by Monday morning, sources told The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail granted the sources anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
In a statement, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat in Ottawa said what it called a “cyber incident involving Global Affairs” was first detected on January 19, “after which mitigation measures were taken”.
The government said problems remained. “Essential services for Canadians through Global Affairs Canada are currently operating. Some Internet access and Internet-based services are currently unavailable as part of the mitigation measures and work is underway to restore them.
The Canadian government has refused to blame the incident.
“This investigation is ongoing. We are unable to comment further on specific details for operational reasons,” the Treasury Board said in the release. The agency said it was working with one of Canada’s spy agencies, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and its Canadian Center for Cyber Security.
The episode comes as tensions rise between Russia and Western allies like Canada over the future of Ukraine.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the operating theory in the security community is that Global Affairs has been hacked.
Last week, Canada’s cyber spy agency warned of Moscow-backed cyberattacks on Canadian critical infrastructure as Western countries prepare economic sanctions amid growing expectations that Russia will invade Ukraine.
A Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine – up to 100,000 troops – raised fears of an invasion which the White House said could come “at any time”. Russia has asked for guarantees that NATO will not expand membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states – commitments that have been refused.
The Canadian government has been outspoken in its defense of Ukraine’s right to self-determination and last Friday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $120 million loan for Kiev as it prepares for a possible war with Russia.
Trudeau also signaled that more support is coming as the Liberal government toughens its tone on the threat of Russian invasion and mulls more training of soldiers and defensive military equipment for Ukraine.
The Canadian Center for Cyber Security joined its counterparts in the United States and Britain last Thursday to urge Canadian businesses, such as electric utilities and energy companies, to be wary of cyberattacks from from Russia.
The agency said in a statement that it is aware of foreign cyber threat activity, including by Russian-backed actors, to target Canadian critical infrastructure network operators and their operational and IT technologies.
Retired Major General David Fraser said he believed “100%” that Russia was behind the Global Affairs hack, calling it a classic maneuver by President Vladimir Putin.
“It’s about coercion and domination of information,” he said. “It’s plausible deniability. It is difficult to find the source and it is very disturbing. Mr Fraser said President Putin is “testing the waters everywhere” with cyberattacks and trying to sow the seeds of dissent in Ukraine to destabilize and overthrow the government.
He said this should come as no surprise as cyberattacks are one of Mr Putin’s main offensive tools.
“When they think they need to send a message or do something preventative, for something they’re going to do later, they go on the attack,” he said. “A small attack like this probably sends a pretty strong message to the prime minister.”
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