by Steven Hill, Guardian, November 16, 2016
WikiLeaks and a network of anonymous hackers have become a major influence – but are they enhancing our democracy or undermining it?
A new and disturbing factor emerged during this presidential election, and one that may change elections forever: democracies are now at the mercy of hacking and surveillance technology – and those who control it.
WikiLeaks and a network of anonymous hackers have become a major influence, turning the rituals of democracy into sleaze-fests for the tabloids and the sensationalist press. And foreign governments have a hand, too – allegedly Russia, in the case of the US election.
Technology has advanced rapidly from election to election, becoming more powerful and ubiquitous. Skilled hackers have the ability to access and release private conversations, communications and information, whether from two hours ago or 20 years ago.
And now in the US, that technology has played the role of kingmaker: WikiLeaks’ firepower was directed only at one of the presidential candidates, and the topic of missing emails was controversially revived by the FBI nine days before the election. Hillary Clinton blamed that intervention as one reason she lost the election. Both set a troubling precedent, but this emerging “leakocracy” is not just a threat to the US.
Following two separate cyber-attacks targeting major political parties in Germany, both with links to Russia, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week that Russia may try to influence the upcoming German federal elections in September 2017 through a campaign of hacking and disinformation. Germany is already facing “a daily task” of responding to Russian cyber-attacks, Merkel says. Security experts suggest Russia may think it would be better able to deal with a more leftwing government than the current grand coalition led by Merkel, a center-right conservative.
The trail of evidence in many recent hacks points to Russia, says Martin Schallbruch, deputy director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin. “It’s significant that attacks like this increasingly try to capture large volumes of data, as was the case with the DNC, in order to do something with them in the future,” Schallbruch said. “We’re a year away from German national elections. And an attacker who stocks up on information today is better capable of action in nine months, be it leaking that information or blackmailing someone. It’s conceivable. We’ve seen it in the US, so why not in Germany?”
Cyber-warfare also hit France’s TV5 Monde television channel in April 2015, forcing it off the air and placing jihadist propaganda messages on the station’s website and social media accounts.
In the Philippines, just a month before the presidential election in May 2016, the government suffered probably its worst ever data breach, while a few months earlier the Philippine Commission on Elections saw its website defaced and its entire database posted online. Ryan Flores, a senior manager at IT security firm Trend Micro, said the government’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities could lead to the election being “sabotaged”.
In the UK, the leaked Panama Papers revealed that the then UK prime minister David Cameron had personally profited from a tax-dodging stash of £30,000 in an offshore investment fund set up by his father. As de facto leader of the Remain campaign in the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union, Cameron lost public credibility over the incident and damaged the campaign to stay in the EU.
By the time the US election rolled around, Americans were confused and reeling after a vicious campaign, and both Donald Trump and Clinton had unprecedented negative ratings from voters.
Even the possibility of being embarrassed by a leak will discourage some people from running for office. How many good potential candidates are so squeaky clean that she or he can survive having snatches of conversations or emails ripped out of context and splashed across the headlines? Or having the email archives of a candidate’s closest advisers (such as Clinton’s election campaign chairman, John Podesta) raked through for scandal material?
Technology has certainly affected elections before, most famously with the sensation caused by the John Kennedy-Richard Nixon television debates. Those who watched the debates on TV thought Kennedy won, and those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon won.
But the recent US presidential election is the first time technology has played such a central role in digging into private lives, hacking into private communications, unearthing what was previously unearthable – and then providing the means to broadcast that all over the world. Adding to the mystery and tragedy is the apparent likelihood that foreign governments increasingly have the capabilities to do this to each other, trying to sway the outcome of elections and help the voters of another nation pick a leader they find more palatable.
Allowing Julian Assange or Vladimir Putin to become the kingmakers for important elections all over the world seems like a shortcut toward a democratic death spiral. We need to consider the vastly disproportionate influence of technology, because the critical processes and institutions of democracy may be more fragile than we thought.