Cyber Security and Emerging Threats

Canada’s Digital Divide and Security Risks

Digital Divide

French philosopher Montesquieu noted that only democratic societies require the “whole power” of education, considering despotic regimes depend on propaganda instead of education. Many years later, in 2016, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) dilatorily recognized internet access as a basic Canadian right, a catalyst for innovation, and a crucial element of Canada’s global competitiveness in the 21st century.

Yet, according to every recent account, analysis, and assessment, Montesquieu’s democratic education is becoming harder to obtain for Canadians falling on the wrong side of today’s digital divide. These, at the extreme end of the scale, are the approximately 6% of Canadians who reported having no internet connection at all in 2020.

This leaves 94% of Canadians with some internet connection, but it does not make the divide binary. Disparities in connection quality, accessibility, cost, and other variables like digital literacy, all factor into this divide. Rural areas and Indigenous communities face particularly disproportionate connectivity challenges, and those with a connection often suffer from speeds below the CRTC’s minimum recommendation of 50/10 Mbps.

Consequently, most examinations of the digital divide in Canada focus on the complex socio-economic issues affecting this divide and variables like income or geography. After COVID responses across industrialized democracies highlighted our reliance on digital infrastructure, devices, and services, more content emerged to analyze challenges confronting Canadians on the wrong side of the divide.

Closing the digital divide will enhance Canada’s competitiveness in the digital economy and equip more Canadians with the skills and tools they need to participate in this economy. This divide, however, also creates significant national security risks for Canada that must be considered and mitigated. These risks add urgency to implementing creative solutions that close the divide and make sure Canadians are protected online and offline.

National Security

Security risks emerging from Canada’s digital divide are best understood in the context of the ongoing competition for network hegemony between the U.S. and China. Owning and operating the infrastructure and hardware that support modern networks and data flows (like submarine cables, semiconductors, satellites, and 5G telecommunications) is now a declared strategic objective of great powers.

China’s presence across global networks has expanded over the past decade, along with the market share of Chinese technology companies like Huawei (telecommunications) or Hengtong (fiber optics) and opportunities for China to hijack cross border data flows. China’s integration into this infrastructure compounds existing and significant security, economic, and human rights risks facing Canada and its allies.

Chinese law compels Chinese companies to conduct intelligence work on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If ostensibly private companies (like China Telecom) can liberally install their own network equipment and establish points of presence across strategic nodes where large amounts of international data flow, then sensitive Canadian and Allied data remains vulnerable to being hijacked and decrypted leisurely on CCP servers, often without Canadian knowledge. It is telling that technology-related foreign direct investments (FDI) dropped 96% between the U.S. and China from 2016-2020.

Despite tough U.S. sanctions, China is acquiring a first mover advantage in strategically delivering network infrastructure like broadband and 5G connections to emerging markets (Asia, Africa, Latin America). This could provide China with a global advantage like the one the U.S. currently enjoys in cloud computing, where it enjoyed a clear first mover advantage. An oversimplified but laconic explanation of this is best captured by an article titled “For Africa, Chinese Built Internet Is Better Than No Internet at All”. 

Internationally, security concerns posed by Huawei dominating the 5G market have rarely outweighed the commercial advantages Huawei offers a connection-hungry emerging market. Even Five Eyes members (an intelligence-sharing consortium made up of the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand) were not immune from a robust U.S. pressure campaign to ultimately exclude Huawei from domestic competition in those states.

What happened in the rural American town of Glasgow, Montana is an instructive case study in how the digital divide in a developed nation can be exploited by a foreign adversary. Residents there were not served by any of the major American carriers, which allowed a company like Huawei to penetrate this market without competition. Once Huawei was banned from the U.S. market, this community lost the socio-economic benefits of connectivity.  

It is a failure of U.S. and Canadian security (and socio-economic) policy when no company has been able to provide commercially competitive alternatives to Huawei in areas like broadband, either domestically or internationally.

Closing the Divide

Since no single panacea exists for risks this complex, Canada must develop national strategies and implement policies that incent trusted vendors to close the digital divide in partnership with the government. This is an effective risk mitigant to legitimate threats posed by Chinese network hegemony.

Countries’ reliance on national security rationales for launching network partnerships like Clean Network brings them only limited success internationally and does not absolve policymakers of the responsibility to close domestic digital divides through market and commercial superiority. Doing so mitigates the socio-economic costs of Canada’s digital divide, which have only grown higher since the start of the pandemic. It is incumbent on governments that recognize internet as a basic right to enable a system that provides citizens with commercially viable alternatives to Huawei if legitimate security concerns result in its exclusion.

If Canadian telecoms were serious about bridging Canada’s digital divide, they would have signalled so in the past 30 years. Their inaction, combined with the risks of foreign adversaries exploiting this divide, is reason enough for government action that accelerates closing the gap.

Looking ahead, Canada and its allies must apply lessons learned from their 5G experience to 6G, which is estimated to still be over a decade away. By forming government partnerships to support trusted companies, these states can become 6G leaders before that time.

More investments in local broadband (the Ontario Government is a leader in investments and partnerships), satellites, and regulatory acceptance of private efforts to connect communities via initiatives like Starlink will also be required if Canada is to effectively address the range of security, socio-economic, and other challenges created by its digital divide.

Online Internet Education  (2016) by “Max Pixel” via Max Pixel. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero CC0 1.0

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.