Post US Election, Global Community Preps to Safeguard Voting

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Posters for the left-wing primaries ahead of the France's 2017 presidential elections are displayed at the French Socialist Party (PS) headquarters in Paris, on January 9, 2017. (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — High profile cyberattacks against enterprises, government agencies and political organizations spurred international dialogue about implications during 2016. Cyber experts predict 2017 will be a lot worse – with hackers opting more for online political and information warfare, and the international community scrambling to protect themselves.

With the alleged Russian hacks during the U.S. election still under investigation, European governments are now bracing for cyber-meddling by Moscow in upcoming national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany. It has all led to fears that a new era of cyber-sabotage has begun.

Concerns are particularly heightened in Germany, where Russian hackers have previously taken aim at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and where there are concerns Russian cyber-meddlers could help tilt the 2017 federal elections toward the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which made gains in recent regional elections.

Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution, a domestic security agency, said there was a clear threat from Russian hackers seeking to sow “uncertainty in German society” and to destabilize the country.

“In the political arena we see increasing and aggressive cyber espionage,” he said. “We see a potential hazard to members of the German government, the Bundestag [German parliament] and employees of democratic parties through cyber operations.”

And it does indeed seem like a tactic, rather than an incident. While Russian interference in the U.S. election has attracted far more attention, the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, which is in the process of joining NATO, came under a barrage of cyberattacks on the day it held parliamentary elections in October. There were also reports of a Russian-directed false news campaign aimed at defeating the Dec. 4 constitutional referendum in Italy. Miguel De Bruycker of Belgium’s Centre for Cyber Security said that the websites of the Belgian defense ministry and of the Prime Minister Charles Michel have also been the victims of recent cyberattacks.

For obvious reasons, election hacking has been a hot topic in the U.S., but other countries are also worried about someone breaking into their voting infrastructure and tampering with the democratic process.

“Unfortunately we cannot exclude such activities in Germany, either,” said Social Democrat MP Rolf Mützenich of hackings that could influence the polls.

German members of Parliament and administration workers were victims of a hacker attack in 2015, when a group called “Sofacy” infiltrated 14 Bundestag servers and stole 16 gigabytes worth of information. Politicians and intelligence officials alike are worried that information gathered in this attack could be used to discredit politicians closer to election day next year.

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says Russia in particular has made “brilliant use” of old and new forms of propaganda to exploit political divisions. Opportunistic but sophisticated campaigns are an attempt, he believes, to “sabotage democracy.”

That said, the fight back is underway. Western intelligence agencies, for instance, have been monitoring a Russian campaign on a Cold War scale to support a wide range of European parties and actors. Elsewhere, NATO, the EU and member countries are being actively encouraged to participate in the work of the European Centre for Countering Hybrid Threats and also exchange information between the EU Hybrid Fusion cell and its NATO counterpart.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Defense News, “Faced with this developing threat, NATO has not sat idle. We have worked hard to bolster our own networks and to help allies strengthen their cyber defenses.”

In France, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently announced plans to develop an offensive capability in cybersecurity and the creation of a “cyber commander” post.  It was the first time a French official confirmed the intention to take an offensive step in the digital domain rather than simply defend against hackers. Combat units specializing in information technology will be formed, to respond to attacks by neutralizing those incoming threats.

The French defense minister was clear in statement made Dec. 12 during a visit to the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office at Bruz, northern France: “Our cyber offensive capability should allow us to enter our enemy’s systems or networks in order to damage, interrupt service or to neutralize temporarily or permanently.”

Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.