Influencing Elections in the Digital Age

Throughout history, foreign entities have meddled in the internal affairs of other countries, including leadership duration, reputation, and elections of other countries. Whether it’s a coup receiving external support, such as last year’s attempted coup in Burundi, or major power politics battling it out, such as between the East and West during the Cold War, external actors often attempt to influence domestic elections to achieve a variety of objectives. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the US is investigating the possibility of covert Russian operations to influence this fall’s presidential elections. Following the DNC hack, the DCCC hack, and last week’s news about breaches of Illinois and Arizona’s databases, this is just the latest, potential indication of Russian tactics aimed at undermining the US elections and democracy.

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has exerted domestic control of the Internet, employing his team of Internet trolls to control the domestic narrative. Building upon the domestic success of this tactic, he has also employed it in Ukraine, and other former Eastern bloc countries. As targeted sanctions continue to strangle the Russian economy, coupled with low oil prices, Putin’s international behavior predictably reflects a rational-actor response to his domestic situation. He is going on the offensive, while attempting to undermine the very foundation of US democracy.  The potential for Russian covert operations reinforces the point that offensive cyber activity does not occur in a stovepipe from other cross-domain geo-political strategies. Instead, it is one part of a concerted, multi-pronged effort to achieve strategic objectives, which may include undermining the foundation of US democracy domestically and internationally.


US Election Digital Hacking: A brief history

At least as far back as 2004, security professionals have warned that elections can be digitally hacked. By some accounts, the US experienced the first election hack in 2012 when Miami-Dade County received several thousand fraudulent phantom absentee voter ballot requests. They weren’t the only political entities subject to hacking attempts. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns also experienced attempted breaches by foreign entities seeking to access databases and social media sites. Even earlier, in 2008, the Obama and McCain campaigns also suffered the loss of “a serious amount of files” from cyber attacks. China or Russia were the key suspects based on the sophistication of the attacks. Clearly, this has been an ongoing problem, with little fix in sight. Many states continue to push forth with electronic voting systems vulnerable to common yet entirely preventable attacks, and many states have yet to also implement a paper trail.


Hacking an Election around the World

The US is not the only country that has or continues to experience election hacking. External actors can pursue multiple strategies to influence an election. In the digital domain, these can roughly be bucketed into the following:

  • Data theft: This is not merely a concern in the United States, but is a global phenomenon and is likely going to grow as elections increasingly become digitized. The hack on the Philippines Commission on Elections exposed the personally identifiable information of 55 million citizens. The Ukraine election system was attacked prior to the 2014 election with a virus intended to delete the election results. More recently, Taiwan is experiencing digital attacks (likely from China), aimed at gaining opposition information. Hong Kong is in a similar situation, with digital attacks targeting government agencies leading up to legislative elections. The data theft often occurs for espionage purposes, either to conceal for information gain, or to disclose as a large data dump, such as the DNC data leak.
  • Censorship: Government entities – largely in authoritarian countries – attempt to control social media prior to elections. As a recent article noted, “Election time in Iran means increased censorship.” This is not just true of Iran, but of many countries across the globe. In Africa, countries as diverse as Ghana, Ethiopia, and Republic of Congo have censored social media during the election season. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for 30 years, has deployed Internet censorship, targeting specific social media sites, as a means to influence elections.  Last year, Turkey similarly cracked down on social media sites prior to the June elections, similar to Erdogan’s tactics in 2014 during presidential elections. Of course, a government’s censorship often coincides with the electorate’s circumvention of the censorship, which can be analyzed through the use of anti-censorship tools like Tor or Psiphon.
  • Disinformation: In one of the most intriguing alleged ‘election hacks’ to date, earlier this year Bloomberg reported the case of a man who may have literally rigged elections in nine Latin American countries. He did not do this solely via data theft, but rather through disinformation. Andrés Sepúlveda would conduct digital espionage to gather information on the opposition, while also running smear campaigns and influencing social media.  This is similar to Putin’s tactics via the Trolls, as he created fake YouTube videos, Wikipedia entries, and countless fake social media accounts. While the Russian trolls have largely focused domestically or in Eastern Europe, there is indication that they are increasingly posing as supporters within the US election.


Adjusting the Risk Calculus

Elections are just one of the many socio-political events that experience heightened malicious activity. However, within democracies, elections are the bedrock of the democratic process, and manipulation of them can undermine both domestic and international legitimacy.  At this weekend’s G-20 summit, President Obama and Putin met to discuss, among other things, acceptable digital behavior. President Obama noted the need to avoid the escalation of an arms race as has occurred in the past, stressing the need to institutionalize global norms.

This is an important point, as digital espionage and propaganda – especially when aimed against a core foundation of democracy – do not necessitate digital responses. In yesterday’s The Washington Post article, Senator Ben Sasse urged Obama to publicly name Russia as the source behind the latest string of attacks on the US presidential elections. He noted, “Free and legitimate elections are non-negotiable. It’s clear that Russia thinks the reward outweighs any consequences….That calculation must be changed. . . . This is going to take a cross-domain response — diplomatic, political and economic — that turns the screws on Putin and his cronies.”

A key feature of any deterrence strategy is to adjust the risk calculus. Russia’s risk calculus remains steadfast, with the benefits of disinformation and data theft clearly outweighing the costs. The latest investigation of Russian covert operations further elucidates that the cyber domain must not be viewed solely through a cyber lens, as is too often the case. Instead, nefarious digital activity is part of the broader strategic context, requiring creative, cross-domain solutions that impact an adversary’s risk calculus, while minimizing escalation.