It’s official: WikiLeaks and anonymous Russian sources are now major players in elections. A new and disturbing factor emerged during the US presidential campaign, one that may change elections forever: democracies are at the mercy of hacking and surveillance technologies, and of those who control them. Already there are disturbing signs that this may affect Germany’s federal elections in September 2017.
Cyber technology has advanced rapidly from election to election, becoming more powerful and ubiquitous. Various shadowy operatives have increased their capability to record, videotape, hack, unearth and release private conversations, communications and information, whether from two hours ago or twenty years. They can turn the rituals of democracy into sleaze-fests for the sensationalist press.
And in the US these murky forces played the role of kingmaker. The fact that WikiLeaks firepower was directed at only one side of the presidential race is cause for alarm – as is the last-minute involvement of a leading law enforcement agency like the FBI. Both establish troubling precedents.
One can’t help but wonder how past US presidential candidates would have fared if their most private conversations and correspondences had been hacked and leaked to the public, whether those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.
But it is not just the US that is being affected by this new “leak-ocracy.”
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Two separate cyber-attacks in Germany, both with links to Russia, have targeted the Bundestag and major political parties. Were they just warm-ups for next September’s elections, testing Germany’s cyber defences? Chancellor Merkel has warned that Russia may try to influence the electoral outcome through such attacks and a disinformation campaign. She added that Germany already faces “a daily task” of responding to Russian cyber attacks. As to Russia’s motives, security experts suggest that Moscow may think it would be better able to deal with a non-Merkel government.
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,” he 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?”
Cyberwarfare also hit France’s TV5 Monde television channel in April 2015, forcing it off the air and placing jihadist propaganda messages on its 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; a few months earlier the Commission on Elections saw its website defaced and its entire database posted online amid warnings that the government’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities might have “sabotaged” the election.
In the UK, the leaked Panama Papers revealed that 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. Cameron already was suffering from a loss of credibility with the public, and as de facto leader of the Remain campaign in the ‘Brexit’ vote, this only further tarnished him and undermined the Remain effort.
In the US, by the time the November 8 election rolled around, the public was confused and reeling. Amidst all the leaks and scandals, unsurprisingly Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had unprecedented negative ratings from voters, perhaps a glimpse into how elections in other important countries will play out in the future.
Even the possibility of being embarrassed by a leak will discourage some people from running for office. It will have a chilling effect. Some critics will respond: “Well, if the person doesn’t have any secrets or skeletons to uncover, there wouldn’t be a problem”. To this way of thinking, if you are afraid of your private information being abused, it automatically creates a presumption of guilt. But 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 advisors (like Clinton’s election campaign manager John Podesta) raked through for scandal material?
Even if it turns out there is no scandal there – as in the case of the second FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s and her associates’ emails, which was closed for lack of evidence only two days before the election – it can throw a campaign off for a week or two while the media grabs attention with sensational headlines. At that point, the damage already has been done.
Have we reached a point where too much “sunshine” created by too much technology is threatening to undermine our democracy? Technology has certainly impacted elections before – most famously with the sensation caused by the Kennedy- Nixon TV debates. Those who watched them on TV thought Kennedy won, and those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon won. TV technology has made us more conscious of the visuals, of physical appearance, of stage presence. And technologies for polling, focus groups and voter targeting are now a core part of any high-profile campaign’s strategy.
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But the recent US presidential election is the first time that technology has played such a central role in digging into private lives, hacking into private communications, unearthing what was previously unearth-able – and then providing the means to broadcast that all over the world. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that foreign governments have increasing capabilities to do this to each other, trying to sway the outcome of elections and influencing voters of another nation to pick a leader they find more palatable.
Welcome to the Leak-ocracy. Allowing Julian Assange or Vladimir Putin to become the kingmakers for important elections all over the world seems like a skydive towards a democratic disaster. We need to think about the new role that technology is playing in elections, before the hackers and leakers make a mockery of the vital rituals and institutions of democracy.
Steven Hill is the former policy director at the Center for Humane Technology and author of seven books, including Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and The Startup Illusion: How the Internet Economy Threatens Our Welfare.