Hundreds of workers at cybersecurity agency vote to strike

Hundreds of workers at Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency have voted to strike — a move that comes as the threat of state-sponsored cyber attacks related to the pandemic appears to be rising.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada represents employees working in cryptography, applied mathematics, advanced language analysis and cybersecurity at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). PSAC announced the results of the vote Wednesday.

“The nearly 2,400 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) perform vital work protecting Canada from foreign cyberattacks, including the hacking attempt on Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine research and the recent ‘SolarWinds hack’ of servers run by major companies,” says a PSAC press release.

“They are seeking a fair collective agreement that recognizes the importance of their work.”

CSE, one of Canada’s key intelligence agencies, employs about 2,900 people and is responsible for foreign intelligence cybersecurity.

The vote comes nearly two years after talks stalled on a collective agreement. At issue is the concept of a market allowance — wage supplements negotiated to close pay gaps with workers doing similar work in the private sector. It’s a benefit often used to attract employees into highly technical jobs in the public service.

The vote does not mean workers are heading for the picket lines.

“We are now ramping up preparations and coordinating with our members to determine the precise actions that will be taken and their timing. But we emphasize that strike action can still be avoided if CSE management comes back to the table and steps away from its concession or agrees to arbitration,” said PSAC spokesperson Alroy Fonseca.

CSE says services will continue

Christopher Williams, director general of CSE public affairs and communications services, said CSE’s executive management team continues to work toward a resolution with the union.

“However, we can tell you that essential service agreements are in place to ensure that all areas of CSE have the people at work necessary to continue to provide for the safety and security of the public in the event of a strike,” he said in an email to CBC News.

CSE has been sounding the alarm about the threat of cyber attacks on research facilities and the health care sector during the pandemic. It was one of the intelligence agencies that stated a hacker group backed by Russia “almost certainly” tried to steal COVID-19-related vaccine research in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.

Late last year, CSE warned that state-sponsored actors are “very likely” trying to shore up their cyber capabilities to attack Canada’s critical infrastructure — such as the electricity supply — to intimidate or to prepare for future online assaults.