Election Hacking: Ushering in a New Era of an Age-Old Problem

Source: The New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker


In an age of perpetual information influx, nobody should be surprised that the technology that captures your attention may be programmed to deceive you. Yet, on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, people were shaken when reports of Russian election interference began to surface. After the highly politicized news settled, it became clear that state-sponsored Russian official’s manipulated American citizen’s access to information through state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users.[1] While it may be humorous to read about “trolls” in official U.S. government documents, the U.S. government notes the dangerous potential for Russians to hack other democratic election.[2] Ultimately, the use of technology-based hacking by the Russian government has forced democratic governments around the world to secure alliances in order to protect against new-age technological warfare that seeks to topple democratic electoral processes. Though condemnation of technology-based hacking is warranted, there are similarities between Russian hacking and the historic tendency of the U.S. to meddle in foreign elections.

1. New Era Problem: Technological Warfare that Strengthen Alliances

Elections all over the world in 2016 and 2017 highlighted, for many governments, that democratic elections are fragile in an era of technological hacking. In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Office of the Director of National Security, in partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and the National Security Agency (N.S.A.), jointly stated, “we assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to further influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”[3] If the direct result of the 2016 U.S. election failed to serve as a warning to other countries about election vulnerability, this blunt statement forced awareness. Early 2018, the U.S. and the U.K. issued a joint statement about malicious cyber activity carried out by the Russian government.[4] While this statement did not directly address technology-based electoral hacking, the inference was clear: protect your elections. The tumultuous terrain of Russian electoral interference has allowed many democratic allies to find mutual ground with the U.S. in a time when many U.S. foreign policies are globally unpopular.

Many allies are finding comradery on this common issue of electoral security in a time when global issues are polarized politically. The relationship between the U.S. and France during the 2017 French elections should be highlighted. President Donald Trump and incumbent President Emmanuel Macron had vastly different political ideologies, to such an extent that President Trump openly endorsed President Macron’s opponent Marine Le Pen. [5] However, underlying security agencies were hard at work, in both countries, to protect against a technology-based electoral hack in France.[6] Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the N.S.A, testified that American intelligence agencies informed their French counterparts of the technology-based hacking in the 2017 French presidential campaign.[7] While France did not necessarily need assistance from the N.S.A. to identify Russian election interference, the gesture indicates a cooperative mentality between two politically polarized countries. Furthermore, the gesture indicates that regardless of political differences between the heads of state, agencies are cooperating on a global scale to help protect against the impeding security threat of technology-based electoral hacking.

In another instance, Dutch operatives informed the United States of several individuals responsible for election hacking in the 2016 United States election.[8] The Dutch obtained the identity of these individuals through counter-espionage efforts throughout 2014 and 2015; these efforts included penetrating Russian Closed Circuit Television (CTTV) footage and identifying specific individuals and their affiliates.[9] It is rumored that, as a result of U.S. gratitude for Dutch cooperation, American spies sent cake and flowers to the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service.[10] The Dutch government likely ran these counter-espionage efforts in an attempt to shore up their technology to help ensure electoral security for its 2017 elections.[11] Upon learning that the Dutch were sharing intel with the U.S., President Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, attempted to discredit Dutch intelligence by stating that the Dutch were simply, “fueling anti-Russian hysteria in the United States”.[12] The free-flow of information between the Dutch government and U.S. security agencies bolsters this historical alliance as both countries depending on a fair and open election system. Intel sharing at the administrative level is crucial to providing fair democratic elections. While Russian meddling has deteriorated many relationships between the East and West, historical alliances seem to be strengthened through uniting against the common enemy: technology-based Russian electoral interference.

Many countries saw the impact of Russian interference in France and the U.S. and braced themselves for an attack.[13] In fact, the threat of Russian meddling in the 2017 German parliamentary elections became such an apparent threat that task forces were set up to watch for any signs of disruption. Germans waited for bots and internet “trolls” that never appeared.[14] When no attack became apparent in the 2017 German election, director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin noted that, “it makes absolutely no sense to conduct cyber-ops because everyone is waiting for it”.[15] The waiting game exemplified how international awareness can reduce the prevalence of Russian electoral interference, ultimately bolstering international relationships between democratic allies by ensuring a truly democratic electoral process.

Looking forward to decisive elections, like the 2019 Canadian parliament elections, it is clear that the world is watching. Canada, a likely target of technology-based electoral interference due to its prominence world-wide and strained ties with Russia over the Arctic Circle, does not have to worry about ballots being hijacked due to their paper ballot system.[16] However, Canada should still expect Russian involvement.[17] The Canadian Communications Security Establishment identified three ways in which Canada is still vulnerable to Russian cyber threats: online voter registration, online voting record-keeping, and media-based election coverage.[18] As a result, Canada plans to launch a policy-driven effort to prevent election hacking.[19] The United States has tried to assist Canada’s efforts in cyber-security by href=”#post-7376-footnote-sharing information on identified threats, including telecommunication companies, like Huawei, a Chinese-based company.[20] This bilateral effort to protect democratic elections indicates a willingness to set aside political differences to ensure electoral fairness, a bright side in a new-era of technology-based electoral hacking.

2. Age-Old Problem: United States Historical Monetary Influence in Foreign Elections

While the Russian’s technology-based election meddling has received immense criticism over its successes in 2016, the U.S. is not blameless in foreign election meddling.[21] Loch Johnson, former staff member at the C.I.A., notes that the U.S. has been historically involved in influencing foreign elections,[22] “We’ve [U.S.] used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners ­­–– you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers.”[23] Between 1946-2000, the U.S. attempted to alter elections twice as much as Russia or the Soviet Union.[24] In one prominent example, the U.S. interfered with the 1996 Russian election. Incumbent Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, who was friendly with the Clinton administration, had roughly 8% support among Russian citizens at the beginning of his campaign, before a massive influx of American-lobbied money though the International Monetary Fund (IMF).[25] Not only did the influx of American dollars buy Russian media coverage, but it likely contributed to wide-spread voter bribery stemming from the Yeltsin campaign.[26] Ultimately, President Yeltsin’s approval ratings skyrocketed to 54.4% among his constituents, largely due to U.S. election meddling.[27]

The U.S. has attempted to justify its extensive use of hacking through an idealistic lens, claiming it interfered as a way to promote candidates that would, in turn, promote democracy.[28] Historically, U.S. national security superseded its interests in promoting democracy world-wide;[29] however, in the days since the Cold War, some scholars believe that the U.S. promotes democracy as a means to national security.[30] One could argue that the existence of a democratic nation increases world stability and therefore security for the U.S.. However, it is more likely that the U.S. interferes in foreign elections because the U.S. backed candidates are friendly with the current U.S. presidential administration or provide a minimal threat to U.S. dominance world-wide.

The primary difference between the 1996 and 2016 campaign meddling between Russia and the U.S. is the means used to influencing the elections. The United States used money, the most simplistic way to meddle in an election, to influence the 1996 Russian campaign.[31] On the other hand, in 2016 U.S. elections, Russia began a new era of technology-based hacking to destabilize democracy.[32]


While election hacking is an age-old problem, the availability and accessibility of technology to influence elections ushers in a new-era that must be tackled if democratic nations continue to demand fair and open elections. The problem then becomes: how should a democratic government defend itself against foreign election hacking? When many countries have laws against accepting foreign campaign donations, and pamphlets are not the primary mode for spreading false information, the most prominent form of electoral influence is now technology-based attacks.

In conclusion, Russian interference through technology-based hacking has forced democratic governments around the world to shore up alliances in order to protect elections. An unintended consequence of Russian interference became the increased communications between democratic nations seeking to protect its elections. And while many nations are preparing to secure technology in its elections, the globalized knowledge of the Russian cyber-attacks decreases the likelihood that the same type of attacks will occur again. However, cyber-attacks are not the only type of election “hacking” that takes place. The U.S. has a rich history of “hacking” foreign elections though non-technological means. Even though there are different ideologies to justify election interference, ultimately the U.S. and Russia are both answerable to a similar transgression: influencing foreign elections.

  1. Office of the Dir. of Nat’l Intelligence, Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution 1, 2 (2018), https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf.
  2. Id. at 5.
  3. Id.
  4. Nat’l Cyber Sec. Ctr., Advisory: Russian State-Sponsored Cyber Actors Targeting Network Infrastructure Devices (2018).
  5. Ben Jacobs, Donald Trump: Marine Le Pen is ‘Strongest Candidate’ in French Election, The Guardian (Apr. 21, 2017, 4:26 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/21/donald-trump-marine-le-pen-french-presidential-election.
  6. Adam Nossiter et. al., Hackers Came, but the French Were Prepared, N.Y. Times (May 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/world/europe/hackers-came-but-the-french-were-prepared.html.
  7. Id.
  8. Nick Allen, Dutch Spies ‘Caught Russian Election Hackers on Camera’, The Telegraph (Jan. 26, 2018, 5:36 PM), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/26/dutch-spies-caught-russian-election-hackers-camera/.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Michael Schwirtz, German Election Mystery: Why No Russian Meddling?, N.Y. Times (Sept. 21, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/world/europe/german-election-russia.html.
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. Mike Blanchfield, NATO Expert Warns of Russian Meddling in Canada’s 2019 Election: ‘Democracy is in Trouble’, Global News (Feb. 27, 2018, 10:01 AM), https://globalnews.ca/news/4049792/canada-2019-election-russia-meddling-nato/.
  17. Id.
  18. Commc’n Sec. Establishment, Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process (2017).
  19. Amanda Coletta, Canada Proposes Sweeping Law to Block Foreign Interference in Elections, Wash. Post (May 5, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/ (search “Canada Proposes Sweeping Law to Block Foreign Interference in Elections” hyperlink).
  20. Ribert Fife & Steven Chase, Former top Canadian security officials warn Ottawa to sever links with China’s Huawei, The Globe and Mail (Mar. 19, 2018), https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-former-top-canadian-security-officials-join-call-for-ottawa-to-nix/.
  21. Erwin Chemerinksy, False Speech and the First Amendment, 71 Okla. L. Rev 1, 11 (2018).
  22. Scott Shane, Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too. (Feb. 17, 2018).
  23. Id.
  24. All Things Considered: Database Tracks History of U.S. Meddling In Foreign Elections, National Public Radio (Dec. 22, 2016).
  25. Markar Melkonian, US Meddling in 1996 Russian Elections in Support of Boris Yeltsin, Global Research (Nov. 11, 2017), https://www.globalresearch.ca/us-meddling-in-1996-russian-elections-in-support-of-boris-yeltsin/5568288.
  26. Id.
  27. Id.
  28. Peter Beinart, The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling, The Atlantic (Jul. 22, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/07/the-us-has-a-long-history-of-election-meddling/565538/.
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Id.
  32. Office of the Dir. of Nat’l Intelligence, Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution 1, 2 (2018) https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf.