Foreign interference in elections hard to investigate, prosecute: Côté

The biggest danger to Canada’s federal election is the prospect of foreign interference, but investigating it is hard and laying charges is tough, says the man who must police the election.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with CBC News, Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté said he has not yet seen attempts to interfere. However, he said there is no reason to believe that Canada will escape the kind of meddling that has occurred during elections in the United States or the United Kingdom.

The biggest challenge, he said, is if the interference comes from abroad.

“The difficulty for us, as the police force for electoral matters, would be to carry out the investigations when people may be thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg or in North Korea or in China and trying to get the information,” Côté explained.

“So, in and of itself, that would cause a significant challenge if only from the technological point of view.”

How to charge foreign culprits?

“Then, if we do get the information that we need, then how do you charge people or go the next step in terms of enforcement?”

Despite the challenges, Côté has been laying the groundwork to maximize the chances his office will be able to investigate any attempts at cyberinterference in the Oct. 21 vote.

He has hired former RCMP officers as investigators, some of whom he says “are at the top of their profession.”

“Some of them have been teaching the art of going on the internet and finding stuff and going behind screens to uncover who may be hiding behind some things.”

He has also been drafting information-sharing deals with other government bodies like the RCMP,  the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the CRTC.

While Côté has a mandate to enforce the election law, he said his office does not have the capacity to monitor everything.

“Like everyone else, we read papers, we listen to radio, but there are many things that would never come to us unless somebody takes the time to file a complaint with us or contact us and say ‘I saw this and I’m quite worried about it’.”

To help deal with the prospect of election interference, Côté is drafting information-sharing deals with the RCMP and CSIS and has hired retired RCMP experts in cyberspace investigations. (CBC)

Côté has worked out arrangements with social media companies and at least one, Twitter, has agreed to treat requests from his office the same way they would from law enforcement. Should there be attempts at foreign interference on a particular social media platform, Côté’s office has made the contacts necessary to have evidence preserved without having to rely on time-consuming international, mutual legal assistance agreements.

Côté’s office has also been watching closely over the past few months as elections have been held in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta as well as Australia.

While there was no indication of foreign interference in the four provincial elections, he said there have been some reports of attempts by China to interfere with Australia’s vote.

An Elections Australia official provided Côté’s office with a briefing on the election a few weeks ago, including classified information which Côté refused to discuss.

“We’ve collected information, we have established relationships, we have hired people, so I would say we are as ready as we could be to face what may come up — not knowing exactly what it will be and what form it will take,” said Côté.

While complaints have already been filed regarding the election campaign and the pre-writ period, Côté says “the number has not been huge.” Most of the complaints have centred on questions such as signs and text messages from political parties.

With much of the campaign still to come, Côté said the changes to the Elections Act adopted by Parliament appear to be working well. His office is preparing to consult Canadians and political parties on the implementation of his new power to levy fines for some violations of the elections law.

Third parties are registering to advertise as required by law and filing returns, he added.

“Of course it’s early in the game and we’ll have to see whether the returns were accurate and whether some people that should have registered have not.”

However, the biggest danger to Canada’s election remains foreign interference, he said.

“We have no reasons to believe that Canada is particularly in the danger zone from that point of view. But also we don’t have any reasons to believe that we will be preserved from that.”

“For me, that’s perhaps the biggest question mark that exists right now.”

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at