Democracy under threat in the cyber era

Is our digital world compatible with democratic elections?

In the last decade cybersecurity has become a priority on the European Union’s agenda, following several online attacks during electoral periods. Democracy is now faced with a new threat that comes from the web.  

Data released by the European Commission at the end of 2017 is significant: cyber attacks have increased 300% since 2015, are expected to quadruple in 2019 and 87% of European citizens consider cybersecurity a priority issue.

Today, technology permeates all modern society levels, from the private to public sectors. Internet and electronic devices are basic necessary instruments for everyday actions. From economic to transport and industry, our systems are increasingly dependent on cyberspace to function.

Cyberspace facilitates a proliferation of illegal activities through its openness, easy accessibility, anonymity and high connection. These features allow a rapid evolution and sophistication of cybercrime, concerning state and non-state actors, both as victims or perpetrators. Data theft, fraud, industrial espionage but also terrorism and trafficking, are just some examples of threats coming from the web.

Democracy, based on the principle of equal representation, guaranteed by free and transparent election processes in an environment which values freedom of expression, has a lot to lose through a potential digital sabotage.

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How digital propaganda affects democracy

Democracy is endangered by an election hack. In a 2016 report “Cybersecurity and Democracy: hacking, leaking and voting”, Jakob Bund describes four possible ways to influence an election by cyber means, among which the most feared ( but the least likely to occur) is via voting machines hacking, unless made easier for hackers when governments use older wWi-fFi connected machines.

Influencing and manipulating the vote is often related to indirect online activity. Violating candidates’ or parties’ private accounts to steal documents and data, then publishing them online, can influence public opinion and consequently the vote. Discrediting the adversary is an old political technique but in the digital era, consequences are amplified worldwide.

Twisting real facts or even fabricating them is common online. In a Forbes article, Simon Crosby, cCo–founder and CTO at Bromium, describes such digital propaganda as “Inundating voters with misleading or inflammatory information masquerading as news and other trusted sources”, or as it has been recently termed , ‘fake news’.


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The European cooperative response

After the US 2016 Presidential Election was allegedly hacked by the Russian Government, fear of election hacking spread across Europe, bringing cybersecurity policy implementation on top of national security agendas. French President Emmanuel Macron suffered a “massive and coordinated” hacking attack during his 2017 election campaign, leading to leaks of private documents online. The same year the German Government increased cybersecurity measures, expanding the German National Cybersecurity Agency BSI’s budget in view of September elections. This March, elections will take place in Italy and discussions are underway over the risk of hacking and fake news.

To face this multiform threat coming from the web, the European Union and its members adopted specific measures meant to defend the Union from cyberattacks on democracy, but also to create a legal framework to identify and punish those committing cybercrime. The European Cybersecurity Strategy is based on a cooperative and supportive approach among the members and in the European citizens’ interests.

As said by Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, “No country can face cybersecurity challenges alone. Our initiatives strengthen cooperation so that EU countries can tackle these challenges together.”


Social responsibility in protecting democracy

While states embrace new forms of cybersecurity, it is important to keep in mind the role of citizens in fighting digital disinformation. Election hacking, digital propaganda and fake news are parts of our’ everyday lives. By sharing on social media, people have the power to spread disinformation and influence opinions.

When it comes to online information, especially political information, it is fundamental to keep a critical judgment on sources and be aware that vitiated news can directly affect democracy.

It is becoming more apparent that digital media has real consequences on political participation and electoral results. As explained by Dr. Ben Scott during European Data Protection Days in May 2017 in Berlin, today the impact of digital technology on democratic governments is generally negative, after the years when early Internet was a “great equalizer in political power mechanisms”. Technology is amplifying political pre- web dynamics in an open and mostly uncontrolled space.

The century-old democratic form of government is facing a new challenge that pushes it to evolve and integrate with new online forms of information and communication. As Dr. Scott said, “Technology is not going away. Democracy must learn to live with it. “


Stefania Mascolo

Stefania is a Master student graduate in International Security, working in International Affairs and Military Defense field, but also involved in Human Rights protection. She combines her area of expertise with journalistic skills and teaching experience in Latin America.
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