Rising risk of ballot box manipulation

Rising risk of ballot box manipulation

Wikileaks has just released thousands more documents claiming that the CIA has developed special methods to turn almost every gadget that we use in our daily lives, from TV sets to mobile phones, into a two-way monitoring device to spy on individuals.

It would be naive to think the intelligence services of other advanced countries with digital capabilities - from Russia to China, from Germany to Israel - have been ignoring this field. Indeed, a huge debate about cyber manipulation and the spread of “fake news” started after the Democratic Party campaign of Hillary Clinton accused the Russian intelligence service of intervening and revealing the personal e-mails of key candidates, including presidential candidate Clinton. Alleged Russian involvement in the U.S. election has already led to the resignation of President Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

As digital technology continues to evolve, the threat of manipulating elections in various countries becomes a serious problem that did not exist before.

Experts say 2014 was a threshold for the rise of artificial intelligence, when a computer passed the Turing test and initiated the age of “learning machines.”

Some now speculate about computers spreading fake news to voters according to their weaker points.

 Instead of spreading the same deliberately produced “fake news” to 20 million people, an intelligent machine with a sufficient voter database could produce and spread 20 million different messages tailored to individual voters’ preferences and aiming for a single purpose: The defeat of a rival in the ballot box.

One excellent session at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17-19 focused on the issue of “Hybrid Warfare and Attacks against Democratic Institutions” through a “Live Cyber Incident Simulation.” The simulation presented a fictitious country named Kunataba, an EU member with a population of around 10 million and with a large non-EU member neighbor that has political and economic interests in it. 

Kunataba is set to hold an election and cyberattacks to manipulate the election start. Eight of the 10 most read news reports on social media are fake, sourced by manipulating servers through sites hosted in neighboring countries. These stories are aimed at destabilizing and corrupting the country’s system.

Imagine such a scenario: The main opposition party boycotts the election with a statement on its official Twitter and Facebook accounts, claiming that the elections were already rigged and unfair. This means that the ruling party will win the election. But actually the opposition took no such decision and the fake message was spread through its hacked social media account. It cannot correct this quickly because the plotters have also hacked its main server. Meanwhile, if the ruling party finds out about the cyberattack and exposes it, it will face the prospect of working in favor of the opposition party. 

Difficult problem to solve, isn’t it? And there’s more: If you try to take measures, machines that are in the hands of manipulators may start to learn from your moves and develop new steps.

Turkey is set to hold a referendum on April 16, with 55 million voters due to go to the ballot box to decide on whether to shift from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system. It is clearly a key decision for the future of the country.

There are also important elections in a number of EU countries - Germany, France, the Netherlands - that mean a lot for the future of Europe.

The digital threat to democracy is a brand new challenge, on top of already existing challenges. It needs to be dealt with immediately and carefully before it’s too late.