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Election interference fears gains traction in Europe as US probe lags

A sense of urgency has come to the fore in Europe in the wake of allegations that the 2016 US election were targeted by Russia, claims Moscow has dismissed. US President Donald Trump’s firing this week of FBI director James Comey has rekindled interest in the allegations, as well as fears that political turmoil in Washington will derail a probe into the charges. But US dithering could mean that Europe is left to its own devices to deal with the threat. That is leading to calls in the European Union to improve the bloc’s cybershield.

Europe is in need of stepping up its preparedness and co-operation, said Stefan Soesanto, digital project fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank. In the case of Russia’s alleged involvement in the US election, he said “a lot of digital evidence points towards Russia, towards Russian military intelligence and the [Federal Security Service] FSB.”

This was “the beginning of a trajectory, it’s going to escalate,” he told dpa, noting that “in the future, we are going to see a lot of other states entering into that [cyber] space.” Countering hacking hinges partly on protecting systems and tracking perpetrators and raising awareness among users, but the “real challenge” is to finger a perpetrator and determine?how to respond to intrusions, he said. “Interfering in elections” by targeting politicians or political parties and, for instance, disseminating “false information” is “much easier” than conducting large-scale hacking of voting machines, Soesanto assessed.

The Netherlands, which in March elected a new parliament, counted ballots by hand, amid fears that hackers could target automated counting systems. The country in 2008 dropped the use of such systems after hackers and computer security experts had shown how they could be manipulated. Peter Wolf, of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) said there was an ongoing “arms race” in terms of protecting electoral systems and automated counting systems from hacking and manipulation.?

Yet while some countries, notably in the west, have moved away from electronic voting systems, interest is growing elsewhere. “Developing democracies say ‘we have so much election manipulation and so much fraud that the only thing that can fix our elections is actually to use more technology’,” Wolf said. India, for instance, has long experience of voting machines that are also exported, he added.

Concerns have been rife in Germany that the German election would be subject to disinformation campaigns and that the main target would be Chancellor Angela Merkel after her decision to open the country’s borders to hundreds and thousands of refugees in 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin shrugged off those allegations during the German leader’s recent visit to Sochi, and dismissed claims about Russian interference in the US election as unsubstantiated rumours.

Merkel responded by saying she was not fearful of Russian intervention, adding that she was “confident that we Germans will be able to conduct the campaigns without obstacles.” Meanwhile, some of the most vocal complaints of Russian interference in domestic politics have come from France. President-elect Emmanuel Macron and his team repeatedly accused Russian state media RT and Sputnik of siding against them in the election campaign. The Kremlin had “chosen its candidates, [conservative] Francois Fillon and [far-right leader] Marine Le Pen, for a very simple reason: they don’t want a strong Europe,” Macron spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said back in February.

Sputnik and RT in turn complained of being shut out of Macron campaign events, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Russia had no intention of interfering in other countries’ election. Macron’s political movement, En Marche! (Forward!) and IT security company Trend Micro confirmed at the end of April that the party had been the victim of a phishing campaign by the hacker group “Pawn Storm” – suspected of having links to Russian intelligence agencies

En Marche! said fake documents had been mixed up with the real ones in an attempt “to destabilise the French presidential election.” Outgoing President Francois Hollande promised that measures would be taken if there had in fact been an aggressive attack on Macron’s campaign, saying: “Nothing will be left without response.”

In Italy, an investigation conducted by website Buzzfeed alleged that websites linked to the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) were Europe’s leading propaganda agents of Russian fake news. The M5S has dismissed the accusations as “ridiculous.”? In Britain, an investigation by lawmakers concluded last month that foreign hackers could have caused a website to crash during final voter registration for last year’s Brexit referendum, despite the government blaming system overload for the problem. Lawmakers urged the government to develop “permanent machinery for monitoring cyberactivity in respect of elections and referendums,” promote cybersecurity and make contingency plans for responding to any attacks during elections.

Lennart Simonsson, "Election interference fears gains traction in Europe as US probe lags," Business Recorder. 2017-05-13.
Keywords: Political science , Digital project , Security experts , Political parties , Electronic voting , German election , Europe , Russia , America , FBI , ECFR , FSB