Maybe you heard about it from the latest Conservative Party meme. Maybe you saw the headline “Trudeau hands MasterCard a gift of your money.” The internet is certainly abuzz with criticism of corporate handouts and cronyism, a commonly lobbed critique of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
It’s true, The federal minister of Economic Development has recently announced an almost $50-million investment from the Strategic Innovation Fund, gifted to MasterCard to develop a cyber security centre in Vancouver, BC.
While Conservatives have already framed this as another huge giveaway from the spend-happy Liberals, this move may not be as outlandish as it seems. Yes, the Government of Canada is investing almost $50 million, but MasterCard is also contributing $510 million to this project, which, I argue, is LONG overdue. As Mélanie Joly, Minister for economic development says;
“the Government of Canada has invested in a major new cyber security centre which will make Canada world-leading when it comes to countering cyber crime, ensuring cyber security, as well as developing new technology.”
Canada is behind the curve when it comes to countering cyber crime, and it’s a huge liability. Twenty years ago, the height of cyber crime was someone stealing your walkman, but now it could be considered Canada’s biggest security issue. In 2017, just over one-fifth (21%) of Canadian businesses reported that they were impacted by cyber security incidents which affected their operations, and Cyber crime in Canada causes more than $3 billion in economic losses each year. Cyber crime also includes online child exploitation, scams and fraud. And it’s not just some board kid in a suburban basement playing pranks, this is a network of organized, international actors that we need to take seriously.
Sometimes we forget just how much of our contemporary life is made possible through technology, even in things we wouldn’t think about — and much of it is at risk to be targeted by cyber crime. Around the world, both governments and private organizations have been growing more concerned about attacks on critical infrastructure, both from cyber criminals looking to make a quick buck, or even by state sponsored hackers as a political or terrorist act.
Cyber criminals are also targeting networks around the world to access sensitive data. And the targets extend past banks and credit card companies. In a world where your personal data is everywhere, there are many targets for security breaches — targets who may not be adequately prepared for the threat.
In 2016, The University of Calgary was targeted by malware, and paid a $20,000 ransom to cyber criminals. The malicious programming encrypted important files so they couldn’t be accessed by anyone other than the hacker, who only released the information once the ransom was paid.
In 2017, Edmonton’s MacEwan University fell for a massive fraud, and sent almost $12 million to scammers through a large scale phishing scam. Unfamiliar with ‘phishing?’ think about when you receive an email from a bank or corporation that just looks a little off… Maybe there’s a spelling mistake, maybe the email address is unfamiliar, maybe the format isn’t professional. They’re probably asking you to confirm your log-in details or other sensitive information (to make sure you’re protecting yourself against phishing scams, click here). In MacEwan University’s case, this was a much more elaborate scam. The email was well crafted and seemed familiar to the accounts payable employee. The scammers impersonated one of the local construction firms the University deals with, including the logo.
They say that crime doesn’t pay, but cyber criminals are certainly making big bucks targeting our data. But money isn’t always the goal.
Spying, propaganda, and foreign interference have skyrocketed to the top of Canada’s list of national security priorities. Even our democratic institutions are under threat, as shown by Russia’s attack on the 2016 US election, which used a mixture of manipulating media, hacking and traditional spying techniques. Canadian officials know it could happen here too — Elections Canada identified “real risks” of potential hacking before the 2019 federal election, even going so far as to draft a memo on “Electoral Integrity” in October 2017, saying “it has been determined that it is highly probable that cyber capabilities will be deployed in Canada ahead of the 2019 general election.”
Canada has had it’s fair share of high profile technological gaffs in the past, even without the help of targeted cyber threats. These events show how big an impact attacks on Canada’s institutions could make. For example, Canada’s Federal Government sunk billions into the problematic Phoenix payroll system when the system improperly paid thousands of public servants. Now this wasn’t a result of any external cyber threat, but it proves that sometimes an important system is more delicate than it appears — and when it crashes, it makes a big mess.
So yes, $50 million is a LOT of money. You could buy like 16.5 Million cups of coffee. Or completely fund the Alberta Energy War Room for 1.6 years. But cyber security is a big deal, and it’s only getting bigger. As more aspects of our lives incorporate technology, there will be more opportunities for cyber crime. $50 million is a good start to prepare Canada against threats, though even more investment will be needed to ensure long term protection.
In our technology-centered, virtual lives, cyber security is becoming more and more crucial to protecting our wallets, our families and our freedoms. Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government were right to invest in cyber security, and if the Conservative Party of Canada wants to be a viable party for 21st century Canada, they should support it too.