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OTTAWA – Canadians will be informed in the event of serious foreign or domestic interference attempts during the fall election campaign, under a new and first-of-its-kind federal plan.

But what kind of meddling or level of disinformation will prompt the government to go public?

According to government officials speaking to reporters on background at a technical briefing, the threshold is "very high" and limited to addressing "exceptional circumstances."

And what details should you expect in the event that those in charge determine it's time to let Canadians know?

If these instances of interference occur, they will likely already be circulating publicly, so the information provided will be more of a confirmation of what people are seeing as election interference. It may not result in pointing the finger at a specific foreign entity.

Here's everything we know from government officials and a newly released cabinet directive that spells out what the ministers expect from the public servants who will be in charge of what's known as the "Critical Election Incident Public Protocol" while the campaign is underway.

What is this protocol?

Back in January the federal government unveiled a series of new measures aimed at further shoring up Canada's electoral system from foreign interference, and enhancing Canada's readiness to defend the democratic process from cyber threats and disinformation.

As part of this announcement was the creation of a panel known as the "Critical Election Incident Public Protocol," to inform Canadians about serious meddling attempts during the campaign in an impartial way. The objective is to have a plan to inform people if needed, without being seen to be interfering in the campaign.

The scope of the panel is limited, according to the cabinet directive, it will only be initiated to respond to incidents that occur within the writ period, and that do not fall within Elections Canada's wheelhouse, so anything that has to do with the administration of the election, like information about polling places.

"For clarity, Canadians – and democracy – are best served by election campaigns that offer a full range of debate and dissent. The protocol is not intended to, and will not, be used to respond to that democratic discourse," reads the cabinet directive.

Elections are always "rough and tumble" and the panel is not going to referee the election, rather the protocol is in place as a "last resort," as one official said.

Who is in charge of this?

This plan will be overseen by five senior level non-political government officials: the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada's National Security Adviser, and the deputy ministers of the Justice, Public Safety, and Global Affairs departments.

The members of this new high-level panel will be responsible for coming to a consensus on when and how they decide to inform Canadians about concerning online behaviour or content that comes to their attention.

"If there is no agreement there is no announcement," said one government official, adding that if the panel was to speak out multiple times during the campaign that in itself could be seen as election interference.

Public servants are the ones in charge of this because during elections, the government runs in a "caretaker mode," where ministerial decision-making is limited.

The panel and relevant players have already begun running test scenarios to go through what it might be like when the campaign is on. Once the election is underway the panel will talk regularly with the intent of speaking out as quickly as possible if needed, given the nature of the news cycle during what will be a limited window of pre-vote time.

What information will they have access to?

National security agencies including the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Global Affairs Canada, CSIS, and the RCMP will be providing the panel with regular briefings on "emerging national security developments and potential threats to the integrity of the election."

If the head of one of these agencies becomes aware of interference in the 2019 federal election, they will talk to their agency counterparts and "consider all options to effectively address the interference."

And, according to the cabinet directive, "barring any overriding national security/public security reasons," they will inform the affected party, whether that is a political party, a candidate, or Elections Canada, directly.

So far, according to one government official "at this time we haven’t seen direct threats to the 2019 general election," but CSIS is seeing "hostile foreign actors taking steps to position themselves to clandestinely influence, promote, or discredit certain messages, candidates, or groups," so election interference attempts are likely.

How will this panel decide to go public?

Should an incident or accumulation of incidents of foreign meddling or another interference attempt arise, it will need to meet the threshold of being serious and "disruptive" enough—even if on a regional scale—to have an impact on Canada's ability to hold a free and fair election before this panel takes further steps.

In order to decide to go public the panel has to be confident in the intelligence or information that has led them to conclude that a serious interference attempt has occurred.

The panel is to consider both domestic and foreign actors as interferers, though, the cabinet directive notes that attributing the interference to a specific foreign entity may not be possible, "given that attempts to unduly influence the election may involve misdirection and disinformation. Further, it is possible that foreign actors could be working in collaboration with, or through, domestic actors."

Among the factors the panel will have to consider in making its judgement as to whether Canadians need to be informed about the interference are whether it can be effectively corrected or debunked by media reports or by the subject of the interference. The panel will also consider:

  • Reach: whether the interference is contained or has gone viral
  • Scale: whether it is local or national
  • Credibility: whether it is untrustworthy or conceivable
  • Relevance: whether it is irrelevant or not
  • Lifespan: whether it is persistent or not

Examples of what could trigger the panel speaking out include database hacks, blackmailing a candidate or key staff person, the use of deepfake videos featuring a political figure, or the "clandestine" spreading of disinformation.

These instances of interference may be done with the intention to misrepresent a person or party, or may be done for the purpose of creating havoc or distrust in the electorate and Canada's democracy.

"It'll depend on the context," said one official.

How will Canadians be informed?

If it is a serious enough case, the panel will inform: the prime minister; all registered political parties; Elections Canada; and the public about the threat. The panel’s decision to inform the public cannot be vetoed by any of these parties.

After the prime minister, parties and Canada’s elections body is informed, then the Clerk of the Privy Council will ask the relevant agency  to "issue a statement" to notify Canadians. It's unclear whether this would simply be a written statement or delivered through a press conference, which is more likely the case.

According to the cabinet directive, the public announcement will include: what is known about the incident and deemed appropriate to share; and steps Canadians should take to protect themselves.

While government officials say they hope that a public announcement will not be needed, these preparations are being made just in case. "It is not to be used as a means to referee the election… It is a last resort," one official said. "And it would only be triggered under exceptional circumstances."

What happens after the election?

After the election the panel will prepare a report on the way things worked and how effective the panel was at addressing election threats. It is also expected to weigh in on whether this new approach should be made permanent and whether the period of time it is active should be extended.

Officials couldn't say whether the report—in either the classified version provided to the prime minister and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, or the public version—would include any mention of the potential instances over the campaign where interference was noted but deemed not to meet the panel's threshold and therefore not spoken about publicly.