Cyberattacks threaten democracy itself, warns NATO

Society is at risk from hackers attempting to interfere in elections, argues NATO's Jamie Shea.
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer
voting checkbox

Many fear electronic voting machines can be hacked and tampered with.

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The hacking campaign around the US presidential election, cyberattacks against Ukrain's power grid, and even the internet crippling Mirai botnet DDoS attack all demonstrate how cyberattacks have grown to threaten the very fabric of society itself, NATO has warned.

Citing the impact of high profile incidents like these, Jamie Shea, deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO, suggests that hackers aren't just a threat to individuals and organisations, but to the fundamental nature of democracy as a whole.

"Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks. We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions," he said, speaking at the European Information Security Summit in London.

Russian-backed interference in the US Presidential election has already caused some other countries to rethink the use of electronic ballot boxes. The Netherlands, for instance, is reverting back to traditional vote tallying by hand due to fears that electronic votes could be manipulated or tampered with.

"It's quite remarkable that the Netherlands is going to have an election and they've decided not to bother with electronic counting. After what happened in the US, the credibility is too risky," said Shea. "We are essentially, with democracy, somewhat losing the faith in the very instruments we've created to spur our economy and spur globalisation."

The attacks against the Democratic National Committee aren't an isolated incident. Shea detailed cases in France and Germany where politicians have been warned of hacking campaigns looking to "destabilise organisations, publicly undermine their reputation, undermine public confidence in the democratic systems and meddle in elections".

German intelligence services have reported attempts to hack into the systems of the Bundestag and the German political parties, while Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defence Minister, called all of the French parties together ahead of the Presidential campaign in order provide information about hacks against French political parties.

"Only two sites needed to be hacked in order for Russian intelligence services to acquire compromising data, which they used at judicious points during the campaign to inflict maximum damage," said Shea.

"The threat was not to a bank or an institution or an individual, the threat was to society itself, its ability to function and the trust that we have in the credibility and integrity in our democratic model."

In an effort to combat the threats posed by cyberattacks and hackers, NATO has declared cyber a domain of operation alongside land, air, sea and space. It has also recognised the role it will play in the security of all of those areas, as military equipment and infrastructure will need to be continually updated in order to fight off cyber threats

"All of our current weapons programmes -- whether it be missile defence, joint information reconnaissance, drones, and so on -- have to now retrofit cybersecurity in a way that possibly wasn't planned in the outset," said Shea.

It might be a difficult task to carry out, but NATO must undertake it, to ensure that it has the ability to fight cyber attackers and remain on top.

"There's no doubt that cyber is going to have an impact on our military strategy and if we don't dominate it, then sooner or later an adversary is going to come up with a method to ensure it dominates us," Shea said.

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