Friday, August 05, 2016

Is it time for governments to extend digital security protections to all parliamentary candidates & parties?

Over the last few years we've seen increasing attention on the use of personal technology by politicians.

From our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who uses Wickr, to Hilary Clinton's use of a personal email server, and even the struggle President Barack Obama faced to use an iPhone, politicians - like the rest of us - are increasingly using a diverse range of technologies to conduct both personal and official business.

Not all of these technologies are officially approved or secured. Many are newer technologies with both known and unknown security concerns.

However politicians, like the rest of us, continue to use them either because we perceived the benefits (convenience, flexibility, speed, utility) far outweigh the risks we accept, or because the risks are not clearly understood by non-technical people.

This becomes a particular issue for politicians, political parties and individual candidates for parliament when state-sponsored agents, organised crime or unscrupulous businesses attempt to access their information.

There's many motivations for 'political hacking' - commercial advantage where particular information or decisions are obtained before the market knows, political advantage, blackmail or an improved capability to 'groom' politicians to a given perspective supportive of a particular desired goal or outlook, or opposing an undesired reform or initiative.

In fact I think it can be said that political power doesn't only originate from the muzzle of guns, but now political power also emerges from the keyboard.

Information is power, and the best source for information about an individual's views and decisions can be their private email and social accounts.

With the revelations of Russian state-sponsored hackers penetrating the Democratic National Convention and Clinton's Presidential campaign data stores, it's clear that state-sponsored and other organised hackers are increasingly seeing unelected potential parliamentarians as targets.

This is a logical development. It's in the interest of foreign nations to understand the views and decision-making approaches of powerful national leaders. Combine this with the likelihood that the security deployed by a political party is far easier to penetrate than the security deployed by a national government, and the fallout if caught is far less and it becomes a no-brainer for nations and large commercial interests to conduct hacking before an election locks away leaders behind tighter firewalls.

So, now we know that there's a reasonable to high risk that electoral candidates and parties will be hacked - particularly if they have a good chance at election - there's a question for governments to consider.

Should governments extend their security expertise and protections to all electoral candidates, placing them behind state-supported firewalls and security provisions, as soon as candidates nominate for electoral roles? And should this protection be extended to all political parties as well?

Given that even medium-sized governments, such as Australia's, secure hundreds of thousands of devices and people through their security regime, extending this to a few hundred more would be a technically manageable exercise.

The approach would help protect more of Australia's governance institutions from foreign and commercial influence, though likely would only be a partial measure as traditional intelligence gathering and governance influencing methods (background research, infiltrators, electoral donations and hosted trips and tours) would still be available to interest groups and countries.

Individual politicians and candidates would still have personal digital accounts vulnerable to hacking, with which they may engage with the public, the media, each other, business partners, friends, family and, occasionally and hopefully discreetly, with potential sexual partners.

So perhaps the step would provide partial protection - avoiding situations like the one the US Democrats have found themselves in, where the long-term ramifications are as yet unclear.

However even government systems are not totally impervious to cyberattacks, and the limitations of working within a government firewalled system might be too invasive or restrictive for some in the political world.

Also in a world where no security is perfect, partial protection can provide an illusion of security where none should be assumed, with the potential that protecting candidate correspondence could lead to more significant information theft or leaks from either hacking or internal disgruntled staff - or the misuse of candidate data by a future unscrupulous government to influence an electoral result.

On balance I think we're going to have to take our changes over whether political parties and individual candidates are hacked by foreign or corporate interests.

No security solution will ever be perfect and so Australia, and other nations, need to focus less on hiding potentially damaging information and focus more on developing transparent and fair agendas, with individual candidates and politicians being as honest and forthright as they claim their opponents should be.

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