It’s a tall order, but there are ways Canada can contribute to the intelligence mission to globally monitor COVID-19.

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has generated a new kind of demand for intelligence, which Canada must confront. Security and intelligence agencies around the world are being thrust onto the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. Their mission is two-fold: monitoring the global tidal wave of COVID-19, and combating misinformation, fraud and even deliberate foreign interference that circulates domestically. This is a tall order for any intelligence system, made even taller for Canada by the fact that our security and intelligence agencies have never seen health emergency reporting as part of their core mandate, despite a plan laid down in the National Security Policy announced after SARS that unfortunately went nowhere.

The idea of a “health intelligence” mission may seem novel and strange in a Canadian context, but it has been on the minds of allied intelligence agencies for many years. Britain published, starting in 2010, a national risk registry based on classified intelligence assessments, which listed global pandemics as the number one risk to civil society. In response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, US intelligence devoted significant resources to tracking the spread of the virus, fearing that it would leap beyond the region. The most recent US “World-Wide Threat Assessment,” a coordinated product of the US intelligence community presented on an annual basis to Congress, had this to say:

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change.

Prescience and readiness are two different things, as COVID-19 has demonstrated globally.

The intelligence mission to globally monitor COVID-19 can utilize a variety of collection tools. These include communications intercepts, satellite imagery, diplomatic reporting, open source information and even traditional spying (HUMINT). Intelligence agencies have also for many years been utilizing big data sets (metadata) for leads in counter-terrorism investigations. That capability can be turned to global health intelligence reporting.

Intelligence sharing with allies

Not every country possesses all of these tools. Canada certainly does not. But it possesses many and has valuable access to intelligence from allies, thanks to our involvement in the “Five Eyes” intelligence system, which links Canada, the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Canada has a specialized intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment, that could monitor message traffic in pandemic hot spots for clues as to decision-making involving COVID-19. It has a capable diplomatic reporting system in many countries of the world, which has been improved in the post 9/11 period by the creation of the Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP), involving officers attached to embassies and missions whose sole job it is to do open source analysis and reporting on security issues. The GSRP could be repositioned to include health intelligence.

As part of the diplomatic reporting system we also have defence attachés, whose job it is to liaise with host country military establishments. They could also be a valuable part of a health intelligence network, as could our trade commissioner service, and migration control officers posted overseas. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service maintains an expanded roster of liaison officers abroad, also attached to Canadian embassies and missions. They are contact points with host country security services. The Department of National Defence has a small medical intelligence unit, normally utilized to assist in determining health risk in overseas military deployments, but whose expertise could be pressed into service on COVID-19.

Canada doesn’t have a fleet of spy satellites. We also don’t have a real secret intelligence service operating abroad as a counterpart to the CIA or MI6.

Canada doesn’t have a fleet of spy satellites. We also don’t have a real secret intelligence service operating abroad as a counterpart to the CIA or MI6. Even though Canada has expanded its intelligence system significantly since the 9/11 attacks, we don’t have an “all-source” intelligence capacity or anything like full coverage of the globe, but this is where intelligence cooperation and sharing with allies can play a big part.

More health intelligence collection on its own will not serve a purpose unless it is subjected to analysis and made part of a regular stream of reporting to key decision-makers, who must be prepared to pay attention to it. Canada has a substantial, if de-centralized, intelligence assessment capacity with units at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Privy Council Office, the Department of National Defence, Global Affairs Canada and elsewhere, and has built stronger intelligence coordination and reporting channels, including for senior decision-makers up to the Prime Minister. All this machinery could be used to deal with a flow of health intelligence. But, like the collection system, it would have to be repurposed in a nimble way and would need to be able to access scientific and health expertise, not currently in its repertoire.

Misinformation, fraud and foreign interference

The Canadian security and intelligence community may feel more comfortable and ready for the second mission — dealing with the challenges of deliberate misinformation, fraud and foreign interference as they affect Canadian democracy. CSIS has had, since its creation in 1984, a mandate to deal with threats to the security of Canada, including foreign influenced operations.  The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has long been the federal government’s lead agency on cyber security and has recently created a public-facing Canada Centre for Cyber Security with a mandate to assist the public with warning advice and information regarding cyberattacks. The CSE and its cyber security centre have already publicly acknowledged that they are active in dismantling fake COVID-19 websites that mimic government websites, and have issued a warning to Canadian university researchers regarding hacking attacks designed to steal ongoing research. The head of the Canada Centre, Scott Jones, who is a deputy chief of CSE, has taken to the media to warn individual Canadians about opportunistic phishing attacks attempting to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis.

While our spy agencies try to protect Canadians against malicious COVID-19 related activities, there are larger issues facing the Canadian intelligence community. One is an ability to map the information and misinformation warfare activities of a variety of foreign states that may be trying to disrupt the COVID-19 narrative for their own ends. Conspiracy theories are rife and some may be state-supported — a prime, early example being the Chinese claim that the coronavirus may have been imported to China by the US military. Iranian and Russian state-controlled media have also exploited the story of COVID-19 being a US-engineered bio-weapon. Canadian authorities must be alert to the spread of such stories, which Clint Watts, a former US intelligence officer and noted author on disinformation, calls the “false information plague,” and be ready to counter them in partnership with major social media companies.

There is also the issue of digital surveillance as a domestic tool in tracking and containing COVID-19. While this approach has been utilized by some regimes, including China and Israel, it would face serious technological and democratic rights hurdles in Canada. This does not diminish the need to monitor and study its application elsewhere as we store up lessons for future global pandemics. Without full-on cell phone data tracking, there are still lawful tools available to Canadian spy agencies, particularly in enhanced metadata collection, that could be a helpful adjunct to public health testing and contact tracing as we fight to “flatten the curve.”

The Canadian security and intelligence community is faced with an urgent COVID-19 mission. The question is how well and how quickly they can adapt to this new reality, when pandemic outbreaks have never before been accepted or treated as a core national security threat.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: A checkpoint and medical station in Jiangwanzhen in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. Shutterstock, by NG-Spacetime.