Electoral Office preparing to fight possible cyber-attacks

National Electoral Committee meeting discussing online voting. Photo is illustrative.
National Electoral Committee meeting discussing online voting. Photo is illustrative. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The State Electoral Office is preparing to fight possible cyber-attacks and information manipulation prior to the Riigikogu elections and the European Parliament elections to be held next spring.

"Cyber security is indeed a very important topic ahead of the coming elections that the organisers of the elections take very seriously," National Electoral Committee (VVK) spokesperson Kristi Kirsberg told BNS on Thursday.

Liisa Past, former lead cyber security analyst at the Information System Authority (RIA) and lead editor of the EU's compendium on cyber security of the election process told BNS that the cyber security of elections will be one of the key issues in all the dozens of elections taking place in Europe in the coming years.

"It is obvious that organisers of elections and participants in them need to be prepared for manipulations in public spaces as well as possible cyber-attacks, and our preparedness will determine how successful the attackers will be," said Past, who is currently attending a course at the McCain Institute in the US.

"A large number of the so-called campaign hacks, for instance the attacks of 2016 on Hillary Clinton's and Emmanuel Macron's campaigns, have targeted candidates and campaign workers, probably estimating them to be an easier target than the central functioning of elections," she explained. "For that reason, several states have begun educating candidates and parties in the matters of information security."

Past added that ensuring information security was important in order to guarantee that candidates could concentrate on their political platform instead of having to comment on cyber-attacks, the content of stolen documents or emails, which would significantly undermine a candidate's possibilities to present their platform.  

In addition, the Government Office has established "business-style relations on the level of specialists" with Facebook, Twitter and Google, Kirsberg said.

Strategic Communication Adviser Martin Jaško said that said relations concern reporting problematic content.

"The business-style contact we created gives the institutions of Estonia an opportunity to have their complaints reviewed as a priority, which may be of significant importance prior to the elections," Jaško said, adding that joint efforts were made to guarantee that Estonia's internal democratic procedures remain safe from external influence. 

The VVK also called on voters to staying safe in the cyber environment as well. "We would ask voters, too, to be cyber safe — everyone can make sure that their computer is clean and their passwords are strong enough," Kirsberg stressed. 

In addition, the State Electoral Office is preparing a joint monitoring system with several other institutions to keep track of and prevent the possible spread of disinformation, Kirsberg said. Asked if there had been any hostile operations in Estonia so far, she said there there had not.

"The elections in the US and the French presidential elections in 2016 clearly demonstrate how opportunistic the attacker is and how they combine cyber and information operations against the elections and the participants thereof," Past noted. "In other words — in order to delegitimise our political system and electoral process and cast doubt on it, attackers fabricate news and break into computer networks. The midterm elections to the US Congress will no doubt be an important indicator as to what Estonia needs to be prepared for at the Riigikogu elections as well as the European Parliament elections in the spring of 2019."

According to Kirsberg, the in-depth security measures around the elections have not increased the State Electoral Office's budget; however, she added that cooperation with other government institutions who help ensure the security of the elections as part of their daily work using their own funding was very close.

The Riigikogu elections are scheduled to take place on 3 March 2019. The European Parliament elections will follow on 23-26 May.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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