OTTAWA - The federal auditor general says the government has been slow to boot up an effective response to the rapidly growing threat of cyber-attacks on crucial systems.
In his newly tabled report, Michael Ferguson says the government has made only limited progress in shoring up vital computer networks and has lagged in building partnerships with other players.
Ferguson points out the federal cyber-incident response centre doesn't even operate around the clock.
The report says the shortcomings have left key networks — such as the one that ensures employment insurance benefits are delivered on time — exposed to attack.
Assaults that crippled computer systems at the Finance Department and Treasury Board two years ago have been linked to efforts — possibly originating in China — to gather data on the potential takeover of a Canadian potash company.
Ferguson says the cyber-attack cost taxpayers "several million dollars" in repairs, overtime and lost productivity.
A lessons-learned exercise after the intrusion revealed "ongoing vulnerabilities to government systems" and showed that restricted information was being stored on unsafe networks, adds his report.
Officials told the auditor general that the threat from malicious hackers was evolving more quickly than the government's ability to keep pace.
Ferguson says the issue is important because computer-based systems form the backbone for much of Canada's critical infrastructure, including the energy, finance, telecommunications and manufacturing sectors as well as government information systems.
The government has acknowledged the dangers lurking in the online world for well over a decade, but a number of key initiatives and programs have fallen short, concludes the report.
Elsewhere in Tuesday's report, Ferguson found:
— National Defence and Veterans Affairs failed to inform injured ex-soldiers about their rights to benefits.
— Finance Canada has not published long-term projections of the effect of budget decisions on government revenues and debt.
— Planned changes to the old age security system will save government about $10 a year by the time they are fully implemented in 2029, the first time any such projection has been released.
— National Defence is falling perilously behind in the maintenance of its properties, including failures to meet fire code regulations.
But the problems with cyber-security were the centrepiece of Ferguson's fall report to Parliament.
The auditor general looked at the activities of 11 federal agencies, including Public Safety, Treasury Board, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment, the secretive electronic spy organization that is supposed to help secure systems.
Seven years after the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre was created to collect, analyse and share information about threats among various levels of government and the private sector, many were "still unclear" about the centre's role and mandate, says the report.
"Some private sector critical infrastructure owners and operators that we interviewed told us they were not sure whether cyber events should be reported to the Government of Canada and, if so, to which agency."
As a result, the centre "cannot fully monitor" Canada's cyber-threat environment, hampering its ability to provide timely advice.
Further, the centre was still not operating on a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week basis, as originally intended, shutting down weekdays at 4 p.m. Ottawa time and closing for the weekend.
In one case in which government systems were targeted by hackers, the centre was not notified by the affected departments until more than a week after the intrusion was detected, a violation of procedure.
Last year, the centre transferred the responsibility for protecting government information to the tech-savvy Communications Security Establishment. It was agreed that the CSE would provide the centre with timely and complete information about threats.
But Ferguson found the CSE was not consistently sharing data because of the "sensitive nature" of the material it collects.
In addition, 11 years after the government said it would establish partnerships with other levels of government and operators of essential grids and systems, not all of the relationships were fully up and running.
In 2010, the government rolled out a national Cyber Security Strategy, with $90 million in funding over five years and $18 million a year thereafter.
However, Ferguson noted the strategy did not yet have an action plan to guide its implementation. "The lack of a plan makes it difficult to determine whether progress is on schedule and whether its objectives have been met."
Federal agencies agreed with the auditor's various recommendations and spelled out plans to implement them.
Last week, on the eve of the report's release, the government announced an additional $155 million over five years to bolster cyber-security.