Cyber-Attacks May Threaten Global Democracy

Russia’s alleged cyber-attack on the United States Democratic National Committee has shocked the world. US intelligence services believe Russia launched the attack to influence the outcome of the recent presidential election. In fact, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have explicitly accused the former Cold War foe of having helped Donald Trump win the election.

Following the incident, the US government has imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled 35 of its diplomats who, along with their families, were given 72 hours to leave the country. The suspected hacking is believed to have had an impact on the outcome of the democratic process in America. In addition to the expulsion of the diplomats, the Obama administration will also close two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York.

Cyber-attacks have become a common and growing trend globally since the advancement of information and communication technology. Many nations have developed cyber capabilities for both defensive and offensive purposes. The United States has even established its own cyber command, with a new branch within the military to deal with cyber threats. Not only the United States, but many other countries have also attempted to advance their cyber capacities.

There have been several cyber-attacks in the past aimed at strategic targets. One of them was the attack on the Ukrainian power grid. The attack created chaos after it disrupted the national electricity company’s network for months. It also disconnected emergency backup systems and bombarded the server and control room with false information. Similarly, another massive cyber-attack was also directed at Israel’s electrical grid in early 2016. The attack lasted for two days and affected the country’s Public Utility Authority. There have been many other cyber-attacks that forced affected countries to shut down critical infrastructure to prevent further damage.

Hackers have purposely targeted not only strategic assets, which affect people’s daily needs, but also important institutions. Russia’s alleged attack on the DNC has surprised everyone. It shows that cyber-attacks can be used to influence political processes in other countries. Ironically, the ultimate target was the United States, the most powerful country in the world, militarily and economically. With its advanced technology, the United States has surpassed any other country in the world in developing ICT. In fact, the country has set the pace for the global community to keep up with its innovative technology.

However, in the last presidential election, the country was humiliated by the apparent successful attack on one of its political institutions, which many assume has influenced the result.

This attack is alarming not only for the United States, but also for the rest of the world, since cyber-attacks have been adopted to target the political process in a democratic country. The issue of cyber-attacks has become a potential impediment in the democratic process. Such scenario may inspire others, either state or non-state actors, to try and manipulate opponents’ political processes. Having observed the circumstances, with the massive growth in the number of hackers who are mostly business-oriented, it is not difficult to employ some of them to achieve certain objectives. Using cyber-attacks to affect any democratic process in another country is likely to develop further soon. This may perhaps not seriously impinge on non-democratic countries, but it will endanger democracy globally.

Indonesia is a democratic country. The political processes on all levels – national, provincial and district – make use of computers. Though the votes are cast manually, the recapitulation process is performed in an integrated manner by using computerized technology. This may expose Indonesia to a threat, especially if all the devices being used are deliberately hacked by a rival candidate, either an individual or a party. With abundant resources, individuals or parties can hire hackers to target their rivals. In fact, hackers may also be employed to launch cyber-attacks on any legitimate institution to influence the outcome. The adoption of a “popular vote” winning system in Indonesia’s democratic process may even create a more vulnerable condition that may be exploited by hackers.

With the upcoming regional elections, it is important for the country to prepare for a worst-case scenario in dealing with any likely cyber-attacks. Every official institution that plays a critical role in facilitating the democratic process in Indonesia should be equipped with sufficient countermeasures. This is intended to prevent any interruption or even unexpected intervention by certain actors that may control the result. Countermeasures should be able to detect and prevent any cyber-attacks, not only domestically but also externally. Of course, such preventative measures will supplement overall efforts to address cyber-attacks that may affect other areas such as the power grid, financial transactions and any other vital infrastructure.

Cyber-attacks should be listed as a top priority for the national defense and security establishment. The impact is detrimental for any country, including Indonesia. Improper handling of the issue may lead to an unbearable, chaotic situation. Not only will it force the shutdown of critical infrastructure, but it will also seriously affect institutions that are important in facilitating daily activities in the country. And the worst part is that the hacking may influence the outcome of the democratic process to elect a leader at national, provincial or district level.

With the possibility of employing either “in-house” or outsourced hackers, any individuals or parties may use cyber-attacks as an ultimate tool to achieve their objectives. This may happen in any democratic country in the world. Indeed, should this scenario occur, it may damage Indonesia’s so-called democracy. For the country, a collaboration between related stakeholders is crucial to prevent or mitigate cyber-attacks. Interagency cooperation is mandatory to effectively counter any possible attacks in the future.

The Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Indonesian Military, National Police and other pertinent agencies should work together to deal with the threat. Nobody wants to see cyber-attacks damaging this country’s democracy, but it is likely to happen and it is therefore important to prepare. So, let us make our best efforts to prevent this potential scenario.

Frega Ferdinand Wenas Inkiriwang is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University and currently listed as a Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics. He is also a Political Science (LSE) and LPDP Scholarship awardee PK 62.

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