Foreign interference in elections has dramatically increased since 2017 and threatens to undermine the US ballot, a new report reveals.
There has been a huge uptick in foreign states interfering in elections since 2017 according to the research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, which identified 41 elections and seven referendums between January 2010 and October 2020 that were interfered with.
The report’s author, Sarah O’Connor, said at least one instance was directed at Australia and the country could be vulnerable to interference at a state and territory level.
Russia is the state actor most engaging in online interference, followed by China, which has upped its activity significantly since 2018.
As well as these two dominant actors, Iran and North Korea have also tried to influence foreign elections in 2019 and 2020.
Tech companies are currently scrambling to deal with misinformation and a wave of foreign interference in the current US election.
Just last week, the FBI warned that it had caught Russia and Iran attempting to interfere with the US election.
Although historically many of these attacks have been aimed at disrupting voting infrastructure, the main game is about one thing – diminishing public trust in the democratic process, Ms O’Connor said.
“Electronic and online voting, voter tabulation, and voter registration systems are often presented as the main targets of cyber-enabled interference,” she said.
“It is important to recognise that the level of trust the public has in the integrity of electoral systems, democratic processes and the information environment is at stake.”
For instance, in 2016, Russian intelligence famously hacked the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and the Democratic Party, which were drip fed to US media outlets.
They were then “laundered” through WikiLeaks, and helped put President Donald Trump in the White House while undermining public faith in US democracy.
Ms O’Connor said the last federal election in Australia had been targeted, but because of the secretive nature of cyber security, we know little about it.
“Outside of the intelligence agencies there isn’t a lot of public information,” she said.
“It’s tricky because the more info you provide publicly, the more your adversaries know what capabilities you have.”
She said the attack focused on parliamentary emails and was designed to gain information, but the public remains in the dark about how much information they obtained.
Alarmingly, though, it’s not just federal elections and referendums – foreign actors would interfere with state and territory elections if they thought it would be in their interests, she said.
“There is obviously the potential to target smaller elections, but it depends on whether or not the state actor held the perception that someone in the election might be aligned to their interests,” Ms O’Connor said.
The integrity of elections and referendums is a key to societal resilience, she said.
“The material impact is hard to determine, but it’s going on in the background,” she said.
“They’re sowing the seeds of doubt, and there are so many people who do not question it.
“A lot of the online information operations targeting the elections are trying to exploit existing divisions within societies, and even if that doesn’t affect the election result, it has residual effects in society.”