In many ways, the European Parliament elections in late May were calmer than expected. The more extreme political players, while gaining strength, did not do as well as many predicted. Cyber aggression and disinformation operations seem to not have been as dramatic as in 2016, when Russian hackers and disinformation campaigns targeted elections in the U.S., France and elsewhere around the world.
However, there is no reason to be content. The dangers remain real. For one thing, the target societies might have internalized the cleavages and chaos from information operations or self-sabotaged with divisive political rhetoric. As a reaction, Russia may have scaled back its efforts, seeing an opportunity to benefit from lying low.
Disinformation campaigns seek to sow chaos and disorder; in the run-up to the elections, the EU had plenty of that already, without any outside help. In the cybersecurity sphere, the defenders seem to have successfully changed the adversarial calculation for this time around.
Protecting voting and election systems is not a technical and digital question. It is a fundamental issue of democratic rights. Europe protected the legitimacy of its parliamentary elections and showed some effective ways the U.S. and other nations can protect their own.
These are positive signs. As a former chief research officer for cybersecurity at the Estonian Information System Authority and a force behind the EU compendium on election cybersecurity, I see that European nations hardened their systems and were more ready than ever to counter meddling attempts.
The European Parliament is an important union-wide body. It is the only part of the EU system that Europeans vote directly on. Its members, elected to proportionally represent member nations, shape policy and budget decisions. This new parliament will also help determine what will happen with Brexit, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU.
In the run-up to the election, hackers backed or controlled by Russia targeted EU government, media and political or nonprofit organizations, potentially trying to steal information, spy on conversations and emails or misleadingly change information on websites. Security firm FireEye named foreign and defense ministers across the continent, as well as German and French media and Polish state and local governments, as among the targets of spearphishing and other attacks.
The main perpetrators are believed to be two Russian hacking groups, Sandworm Team and Advanced Persistent Threat 28. The latter is considered to be part of the Russian foreign military intelligence service.
Ukraine, often a target of Russian aggression, also experienced spearphishing attacks in early 2019, likely from Russian-connected hackers. More than a month before its presidential elections in March, the country’s Central Election Commission saw a wave of DDoS attacks that Ukraine’s president linked back to Russia at the time.
However, no significant attacks on the digital technologies underlying elections have been reported, perhaps in part because the Ukrainian authorities were prepared to combat cyber intrusion. International donors helped train experts to work new equipment and software and teach officials about cyber hygiene practices. The defense efforts also included technical exercises that let the election commission, cyber defenders and the intelligence community practice cooperating to defend against Russian threats. All this helped prevent serious interference in election databases, including voter registers and the results management system.
Though the Russian-backed hackers went for a variety of targets, the European and Ukrainian experiences are similar enough to offer insights into how the attackers operate. Their tactics and their goals are not as unpredictable as many may think, which means defenders can make preparations based on the most likely attacks and past successes.
In 2018, the EU created a plan to coordinate its member nations’ responses to cyberattacks, should events ever become so serious that they merited more than just a technological response. The EU’s plan lays out a set of common foreign policy and diplomatic responses to be used against attackers’ host countries – like economic sanctions and travel bans. To implement that agreement in the days before the parliamentary elections, the EU governments agreed to target individual hackers from around the world, freezing their European bank accounts and other financial assets and banning them from entering the EU. However, those moves might have limited effectiveness: Freezing European bank accounts and blocking European travel don’t do much to hurt people who live elsewhere in the world.
In addition, last year I was part of an effort in which authorities from about two dozen European governments in and the European institutions developed a list of key principles for securing elections across the continent. That document has laid groundwork for specific measures, such as focused threat-detection efforts, rules governing political advertising online, and multinational exercises and information-sharing systems to practice responding to cyberattacks.
Regarding election systems specifically, EU members agreed to share information and collaborate on defensive action – but were careful not to do anything that would be seen as meddling in each other’s election processes.
Many nations focused on alerting candidates and political parties to potential threats, offering trainings and advice. An Estonian effort revealed that many politicians and political groups have not taken basic security steps, like requiring users to enable two-factor authentication and turning off external access to network management tools. This is also true in the U.S., where government agencies and politicians alike could learn from European studies about how best to prioritize their efforts – or even find out what they should be paying attention to in the first place.
It’s true that there may have been stealthy covert operations that were effective and have not yet been discovered. However, when looking at attempts to influence electoral politics, the results of the vote are the clearest measure of whether hidden forces have been at work. At least in part because of their defensive efforts, the EU and Ukraine seem to have avoided serious damage to their elections and electoral systems.
Unfortunately, that success may lead others, including in the U.S., to assume the threat is less than it actually is. The lesson from Europe and Ukraine is not that elections are secure, but that Russian and other subversives are choosy about when and how they engage. To protect democracy, defenders must remain ready.