Welcome to the Leak-ocracy:  Elections decided by Russian hackers and (Wiki)leaks

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Allowing figures like Vladimir Putin to be the kingmakers of other countries would put us on a nosedive away from democracy. [Semen Lixodeev/ Shutterstock]

A new and disturbing factor emerged during this US presidential election, one that may change elections forever: democracies are now at the mercy of hacking and surveillance technologies, and those who control them. Steven Hill warns that Germany could be next.

Steven Hill is a political writer and the author of Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

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 are having a hand in it too – allegedly Russia, in the case of the US election.

Cyber technology has advanced rapidly from election to election, becoming more powerful and ubiquitous.  Various shadowy operatives have increased capability to record, videotape, hack, unearth and release private conversations, communications and information, whether from two hours ago or twenty years.

And now in the US it has 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 of these establish troubling precedents.

One can’t help but wonder how past US presidential candidates would have fared if their private conversations and correspondence had been leaked. Would the careers of Nixon, Johnson, JFK or Reagan have survived?

And it is not just the US that is being affected by this new “leak-ocracy”.

In May 2015, the German Bundestag was a target of a cyber-attack that has since been blamed on Russian operatives. The hackers tried to steal data from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and the attack also reportedly affected a computer in the chancellor’s legislative office.

A hacker group with connections to Russian intelligence services was also reportedly behind a malware attack launched in August 2016. Politicians and individuals from the conservative Christian Social Union as well as the centre-left parties Social Democrats and Left Party received emails purportedly from NATO that contained a Trojan virus.

Were those attacks just warm ups for the elections in September 2017, testing Germany’s cyber defences? Chancellor Merkel warned recently that Russia may try to influence the federal elections through cyber-attacks and a disinformation campaign.

Merkel said that Germany is already facing “a daily task” of responding to Russian cyber parries. As to Moscow’s motives, security experts suggest that President Putin may think it would be better able to deal with a Merkel-less government.

Martin Schallbruch, deputy director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin, says that attacks like this increasingly try to capture large volumes of data, as was the case with the Democratic National Committee, in order to leak this information at the right moments.

“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,” says Schallbruch. “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 was already suffering from a loss of credibility with the public, and as de facto leader of the Remain campaign in the Brexit vote too, this only further tarnished him and undermined the Remain effort.

In the US, by the time the 8 November 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”.

Apparently, 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 – like 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 targeting certain demographics of voter are now a core part of any high-profile campaign’s strategy.

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 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 toward 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 important rituals and institutions of democracy.

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