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Cyberwarfare undermines democracy while dictatorships stay strong

Part Three in a series of essays by Toomas Ilves, former president of Estonia and currently the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Visiting Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Excerpted from testimony for Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on March 15, 2017.

What we have seen in the U.S. and in Europe, particularly in countries with elections this year, is asymmetric. If an authoritarian government undermines your elections, you can hardly undermine theirs if they do not have democratic elections. Hacking emails of the rulers and publishing embarrassing finds does little if the media in the ruler’s country is under state control, and if republishing them on the web lands you in jail or worse.

Liberal democracies are susceptible to such attacks even from relatively small cyber powers such as Iran. Similarly, a small group of hackers working for a foreign government such as APT 28 and APT 29 can burrow into poorly protected servers anywhere. It is the asymmetry of such attacks that places democracies in danger. Authoritarian regimes enjoy a tactical advantage in this digital world, and their own mechanisms are quite robust against a similar attack.

Democracies stand on several key pillars: free and fair elections, human rights, the rule of law and a free media. Until 2016, an open media was seen as a resilient pillar that supported the others. Yet, because of hacks, doxing and fake news, we can already imagine the problem democratic societies will face in future elections: how to limit lies when they threaten democracy? How to keep parliaments and parties free of hacking? How to respond when embarrassing emails influence the election?

We in the West possess asymmetrical advantages as well. We can investigate money laundering, especially in the countries favored by the adversaries, and take appropriate action. We can make it hard for the children of the regime to study in the West or to live here on stolen riches. A notable example is Vladimir Pekhtin, the chairman of the Duma ethics committee, who sponsored a law to ban Russian’s ownership abroad despite owning a multi-million dollar property in Miami.

In other words, we in the West could use our asymmetric advantage. But we won’t.

Let’s not mince words: tactics like hacking are warfare against liberal democracies. All democracies will need to rethink how to protect their electoral processes.