As a new round of U.S. elections approach, accusations of electronic interference are flying around like crazy bats on a Halloween night! In early September, Facebook revealed it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on controversial issues purchased by a shady Russian company with ties to the Kremlin. And that’s after other discoveries, such as over 650 propaganda-spewing fake accounts from Russia and Iran, were removed in July and August. As a result, twelve Russians from St. Petersburg were indicted for hacking the U.S. 2016 presidential contest, although the likelihood of them ever seeing extradition is slim to none. Nonetheless, ongoing investigations indicate this interference is not limited to the U.S.
How real is this threat and what impact will it have on you? Perhaps more than you think.
Despite the highly charged rhetoric from opposing sides about whether external actors on social media affected voter outcomes, political hacking is alive and well—not just in the U.S. but around the world. Take for example one of the most contentious political referendums in decades — Brexit, the British vote to exit the European Union, the U.K.’s biggest election issue in the last 50 years.
The hotly contested and narrowly-decided decision to withdraw from the E.U. continues to have a profound impact on both the U.K. and the E.U., not to mention relations with the U.S., as the final deadline in late March of next year approaches. Hovering in the background, similarly to the 2016 Presidential elections, are strong indicators of Russian interference through a variety of methods, most notably electronic hacking.
Just like in the U.S., election hacking in the U.K. is a contentious issue which shifts according your favorite side of the ongoing debate. Most pro-Brexit supporters, including government officials, strongly contend that interference did not occur prior to the big vote, while many who want Britain to remain in the E.U. equally assert that Russian interests did meddle and are now calling for investigations. With both sides hoping to use this issue for political leverage, the waters have likely become muddy enough to make the truth impossible to find.
What is the world saying about this?
But perhaps most telling are conclusions in last January’s report by the Democrats on the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee. This report, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security,” specifically states: “The Russian government has sought to influence democracy in the United Kingdom through disinformation, cyber hacking, and corruption. Prime Minister Theresa May and the U.K. government have condemned the Kremlin’s active measures, and various U.K. government entities, including the Electoral Commission and parliamentarians, have launched investigations into different aspects of possible Russian government meddling.” And this summer, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was more emphatic, saying that the warning signs of digital warfare by other nation states like Russia and China are “blinking red.”
Another report, titled “The Brexit Botnet and User-Generated Hyperpartisan News” (in the journal Social Science Computer Review) looked at 10 million tweets referencing Brexit, created during the month before the Brexit referendum. They found that users on 13,493 fake Twitter accounts posted over 65,000 Brexit-related tweets. Most of these accounts mysteriously vanished immediately after the vote, leading the researchers to suspect that they were created by a network of zombie agents.
On the day of the referendum, nearly 4,000 Russian trolls tweeted over a thousand posts using the hashtag #ReasonsToLeaveEU. There were also indications that botnets were used to create denial of service attacks to overwhelm voter registration sites, forcing the government to extend the registration period by 48 hours.
Who else is in danger of foreign pressure like this?
Lest you think the political hacking is confined to a few targeted countries, think again. Russian hacking targets span the globe. The wide range of strategies employed include fake news; disinformation; denial of service attacks against polling software; private information leaks; and personal information theft and dissemination, all of which are executed with the intent to sway various elections and referendum outcomes. These are not isolated instances but coordinated attacks with the shared goal of influencing results to meet Russia’s political and foreign agenda. For example:
- Germany — Russian hackers stole 16 GBytes of email from Parliament.
- France — President Emanuel Macron’s election campaign servers were hacked.
- Brazil — Russian interference in Brazilian elections used social media to disseminate anti-democracy discussions.
- Spain — The government strongly suspected Russian political hacking in the Catalonia Independence movement.
- Finland—Russians are suspected of a major disinformation campaign in 2015 national elections.
Sigh. So, what can be done?
When it comes to this onslaught on political interference, E.U. officials and the U.S. government have both imposed stiff sanctions on individuals and hostile governments who engage in these types of cyber attacks. But perhaps it’s time for more governments—whether in the U.K., the U.S., France, or elsewhere—to step up and take a more direct, hands-on approach. Sweden has already done so and offers a model for others to follow:
- The Swedish government is working more closely with the private sector, social media, electronic and print media to detect electronic meddling.
- Hotlines have been established to allow for quicker reporting of fake news.
- Nationwide high school awareness programs have been established to teach intelligence media consumption.
- Government officials are receiving training to help spot “influence operations.”
- The government and politicians are becoming more open and proactive about publicly discussing these issues.
Will these steps resolve the headaches associated with political hacking? Nope, not by a long shot. But at least they’re a decent start in the right direction.