Major political parties have raised the issue of tampering of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and suggested going back to the ballot paper system. MNS Chief Raj Thackeray wrote a letter to presidents of all political parties and urged them to boycott the upcoming polls if the use of EVMs is not stopped. In the past, the election commission had challenged political parties to prove how the EVMs could be tampered with, but nobody could demonstrate it. Manipulating free and fair elections is not limited to tampering with the EVMs. In the hyperconnected world, driven by smartphones, social media and big data, influencing and manipulating the entire election process by outside forces is not a distant possibility.
In the US, heads of eight agencies, dealing with national security, such as the CIA, FBI, NSA and the Justice Dept, came together and charged that Russia is attempting to meddle in the midterm elections to be held in November 2018. Their intelligence assessment has found that “Russian President Vladimir Putin directly ordered a campaign in 2016 aimed at influencing the US presidential election. In July 2018, Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the Russian influence on the Clinton presidential campaign and the National Democratic Committee hacking case, indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers. The Russian government denies playing any role in the 2016 US presidential elections. President Trump’s response to this issue is wishy-washy.
Recently, Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, expressed a concern that the upcoming elections in India and Brazil could get hacked. He believes that the situation could be more dangerous in these countries as media is not as professional as in the United States.
In my view, many states and non-state actors would want to influence the outcome of the elections in the largest democracy in the world. To do so, you need a combination of deep political intelligence, data intelligence and, in the case of states, direct orders of the top leadership. Intelligence agencies of a few countries, organisations like WikiLeaks and a few terrorist organisations possess such capabilities. The attackers may use different methods and a number of ways.
First, the booth level voters’ registration data with the election commission and political parties could be obtained and targeted. Deleting names of certain groups of people or manipulating with their address and polling booths could change the outcome of closely contested seats. Two, the internal communication systems of political parties could get hacked and selectively exposed. Use of black money in the election campaigns and illicit relations between politics, media, activists and business is a reality of life in democratic countries. In developing countries, political leaders belong to dynasties or are chosen by consensus; not through the primaries. In countries, where they are chosen by internal elections, the process itself is not fully transparent. In India, many ministers, senior bureaucrats and political leaders use private email for official communication.
Access control in the offices of political parties is not taken seriously. Political party organisations are often voluntary in nature. Many office bearers change with the change in leadership. Office space and computers are shared by many people. In July 2016, in the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention, a trove of emails of the party was leaked. It revealed that the DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other officials conspired to sabotage Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Many disillusioned Bernie supporters stayed away from the elections or voted against Hillary. In March 2016, emails of John Podesta, former White House chief of staff and the chairman of the Clinton campaign, were hacked and posted on various sites, including WikiLeaks. Hillary Clinton’s use of private emails for official communication while she was the Secretary of the State, and deletion of thousands of mails, was exploited by Donald Trump. It became detrimental in her defeat. In the Indian elections, the hackers may target a particular party or leader through selective leaks of confidential information.
Third, the threat of influencing elections through social media is most eminent. In India, the number of Internet users is growing rapidly. It is estimated that more than 40 crore Indians with internet access will vote in the next Lok Sabha elections. We have a generation of people who leap-frogged and started reading news on mobile phones. The digital media scene is vibrant and buzzing. Online news sites publish hundreds of stories every day. Hackers can break through the security of popular news sites and insert venomous fake news exploiting caste, regional and religious divides in the society. It happened with Qatar News Agency in May 2017 and resulted in a boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE along with a few other Arab-Muslim states. This year, we have seen numerous incidents of fake news and videos going viral on social media and resulting in deaths of innocent people in mob lynching. The IT cells and cyber armies of leading political parties are involved in setting trends on social media and trolling their opponents. Lately, AI and bots are being deployed in large numbers to do the dirty work. Foreign entities and agencies can easily operate in muddied waters and go undetected. Facebook and Twitter have undertaken massive clean-up drives and have deleted 583 million and 70 million accounts respectively earlier this year. However, it has not succeeded in preventing hackers from using social media platforms to influence the midterm polls in US. I wonder how efficient Facebook will be in purging such efforts in the Indian elections, considering the huge diversity of issues, social identities and languages.
This field is new and rapidly evolving. Interfering with the election process is a serious national security risk. It can result in people losing their faith in democracy and its institutions. Taking into consideration the immense importance of the next Lok Sabha elections, the general lack of awareness about cyber-security among people and, in the absence of credible institutions, we have to look at it, with utmost seriousness.
Anay Joglekar is a political analyst. He has worked in the campaign offices in the past three elections.