How US midterm elections renew cyber threat debate - opinion

In the elections, we have the chance to choose between gaining knowledge and freedom by understanding our role in the question of liberty vs security or live in ignorance and apparent security.

 Cyber attack (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Cyber attack
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Are cyber threats poised to disrupt another American election? Ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, Meta, in accordance with a government directive, disclosed its plan to combat cyber threats and suppress disinformation on its platforms. To this end, the corporation is expanding features and security functions in order to remove misinformation about election dates, voting locations, voter eligibility and election outcomes.

The hope is to avoid foreign interference in elections. This threat is not new. According to CIA and National Security Agency reports, during the 2016 US elections, Russia ran an influence campaign through social media and fake news outlets with the objective to undermine Americans’ confidence in their electoral system and denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

As for the upcoming November elections, US officials have warned against potential Chinese, Russian and Iranian attempts to disrupt the voting process both through influence operations and hybrid threats, where a remarkable cyber incident would sow panic among voters.

Like Neo, the main character of the movie The Matrix, with the upcoming elections we are offered the chance to choose between gaining knowledge and freedom by understanding our role in the question of liberty vs security (red pill), or continuing to live a life of apparent security through blissful ignorance (blue pill).

Indeed, online disinformation campaigns – together with the hacking of election management systems, preplanned denial of service, and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure that could affect voter turnout – are the forms of cyber threats for which citizens in any democracy should look out.

 A 3D printed Facebook logo is pictured on a keyboard in front of binary code in this illustration taken September 24, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION) A 3D printed Facebook logo is pictured on a keyboard in front of binary code in this illustration taken September 24, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

Cyberattacks: A growing threat to national security

Cyberattacks in any of its forms are no doubt a growing threat to national security, either in the form of disrupting democratic processes or in directly targeting human lives. Both government representatives and academics have long expressed their concerns about potential threats posed by cyberattacks, noting that our increasing reliance on digital technologies may heighten vulnerability to this risk. Particularly relevant are disinformation operations which, despite appearing less threatening, are actually more subtle. 

They target each and every one of us, exploiting pre-existing paths of micro-targeting created by advertisers and political campaigners through the use and abuse of personal data. However, the same data stored by tech giants and manipulated by malicious actors to mine national security and influence elections are, in fact, also employed by governments with the claim of ensuring our safety.

By choosing the blue pill, we continue to live our lives in a false sense of security where governments strive to protect us from an external enemy. We thus fail to recognize that national security agencies may also become a threat to our own individual rights.

With a growing presence of digital systems to manage our daily lives, tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which collect and store private data, are the new actors in the evolving cyberwarfare. The famous cases of Edward Snowden and Cambridge Analytica have brought to light how processed meta-data owned by these companies can be exploited by national security bodies to profile citizens.

While this data enables the targeting and surveillance of potential criminals and terrorists, it also allows for invasive identification of, and sometimes complete access to, physical and online activity, locations and movement of innocent citizens with varying, and sometimes non-existent, degrees of regulation. Whereas states exercised surveillance with external authorization and oversight, modern technology has redefined national security and the way nations protect individual rights and freedoms.

If we choose the red pill, we have the opportunity to become aware players in the renewed debate of liberty vs security in the digital age. We are then exposed to the brutal truth of surveillance, where our privacy and individual rights are violated for a greater purpose. With this new awareness, we can navigate the cyberspace, conscious that threats to individual security may come both from cyberterrorist attacks as well as from governments’ attempts to assure national security.

AS A MEASURE to tackle such a challenge and clarify threats from the cyber world, scholars from around the world were brought together in a recent workshop under the auspices of the political psychology lab at University of Haifa in Israel. The event, for the first time, presented a critical mass of empirical research that can serve as a foundation for the field to make empirically tested claims about the pervasiveness, intensity and propensity of cyber conflicts.

Using experiments, secondary data analyses, war-gaming with military officials, surveys and more, the experts shared their findings about the development of cyber threats, new stakeholders’ involvement into the conflict arena, and citizens’ response to the new power dynamics in the digital realm.

Of particular relevance to democratic processes, scholars presented a comparative study, conducted in three of the countries with the most pervasive surveillance technology – the US, UK and Israel – on public support for intrusive digital surveillance. 

To understand how support for intrusive surveillance and individual security works, participants in this study were exposed to digital and kinetic threats with either lethal or non-lethal outcomes. The results confirmed that being showed that exposure to different types of cyberattacks intensifies perceptions of cyber threats and shifts political attitudes in support of stringent cybersecurity policies.

Cyberattacks with lethal consequences harden political attitudes, as individuals tend to support greater regulation in response to the deep psychological distress that the attacks arouse. In comparison to conventional terrorism, cyberterrorist attacks are perceived by the public as tremendously dangerous due to the lack of knowledge on the perpetrators of such attacks and the unknown potential magnitude of the threat.

While experts are attempting to study the outcomes of pervasive technology on democratic processes, and on the relation between individual rights and national security, the reality is that citizens are still not sufficiently aware of what access to personal data entails. Regulations on third-party sales and the relationship between tech giants and national security agencies are still vague. The underlying theory is that digital technologies are not at any cost the source of danger, nor are they our salvation.

Despite the attempt of Meta and the US government to assure safe and fair elections, there is the need to remember that cyberattacks, online influence campaigns and digital surveillance are also carried out in ordinary times, between elections, with the continuous exploitation of citizens’ data. Thus, the source of both danger and salvation relies upon our collective psyche and informed response to the cyberspace.

Daphna Canetti is a professor of political psychology at the University of Haifa. Giulia Dal Bello is a PhD student of political science and member of the Idit Fellowship Program at the University of Haifa.