A new and disturbing factor emerged during this presidential election, and one that may change elections forever: democracies are now at the mercy of hacking and surveillance technology – and those who control it. WikiLeaks and a network of anonymous hackers have become a major influence, turning the rituals of democracy into sleaze-fests for the tabloids and the sensationalist press. And foreign governments have a hand, too – allegedly Russia, in the case of the US election. Technology has advanced rapidly from election to election, becoming more powerful and ubiquitous. Skilled hackers have the ability to access and release private conversations, communications and information, whether from two hours ago or 20 years ago. And now in the US, that technology has played the role of kingmaker: WikiLeaks’ firepower was directed only at one of the presidential candidates, and the topic of missing emails was controversially revived by the FBI nine days before the election. Hillary Clinton blamed that intervention as one reason she lost the election. Both set a troubling precedent, but this emerging “leakocracy” is not just a threat to the US.
Following two separate cyber-attacks targeting major political parties in Germany, both with links to Russia, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week that Russia may try to influence the upcoming German federal elections in September 2017 through a campaign of hacking and disinformation. Germany is already facing “a daily task” of responding to Russian cyber-attacks, Merkel says. Security experts suggest Russia may think it would be better able to deal with a more leftwing government than the current grand coalition led by Merkel, a center-right conservative.
The trail of evidence in many recent hacks points to Russia, says Martin Schallbruch, deputy director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin. “It’s significant that attacks like this increasingly try to capture large volumes of data, as was the case with the DNC, in order to do something with them in the future,” Schallbruch said. “We’re a year away from German national elections. And an attacker who stocks up on information today is better capable of action in nine months, be it leaking that information or blackmailing someone. It’s conceivable. We’ve seen it in the US, so why not in Germany?”
Cyber-warfare also hit France’s TV5 Monde television channel in April 2015, forcing it off the air and placing jihadist propaganda messages on the station’s website and social media accounts.