What you can’t hack: Cybersecurity and political parties

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

Just like every other smartphone app, Canada is updating. In December 2018, Parliament passed Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act, which restructures many aspects of modern Canadian democracy—some sections restoring previous rules and others taking unprecedented steps in an age of new technology. Highlights include requiring online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to create a two-year publicly accessible registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties. The act also mandates that political parties establish data privacy policies to protect Canadians' information. However,  there is no requirement to report violations or even courses of action that can be ordered by the Privacy Commissioner. Canada's cryptologic agency, the Communications Security Establishment, is scheduled to meet with party officials in mid-February 2019 and publish an update on these discussions. Even if there were a breach, Elections Canada would only intervene in a bureaucratic capacity when the rights of Canadians to vote would be affected.

Stéphane Perrault, chief electoral officer of Canada, has publicly expressed his growing concern over Canadian political party platform stances on cybersecurity, or rather the lack thereof. With the 2019 federal election right around the corner, campaigns and their participants, ranging from electorates, volunteers, and candidates themselves, are left vulnerable to what Perrault calls, “fairly basic cyber tricks."

A common example of fraudulent online practices includes the act of phishing, the fabrication of communications (e.g. e-mails) designed to look like they come from well-known and trusted organizations (businesses, financial institutions and government agencies) in an attempt to collect personal and sensitive information. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has been regularly informing Canadians on the tax return scams that arise throughout each spring. Both old and new taxpayers may receive fraudulent emails from seemingly credible senders that claim to be governmental agencies, such as the CRA, requesting information and occasionally, payments  (e.g., address updates, income brackets). In 2018 alone, the RCMP counted over 4,000 Canadians having lost a cumulative $15 million.

Cybersecurity is only the tip of the iceberg in data collection and privacy infringement. Facebook and Google, as for-profit corporations, should have very little interface with the core tenets of the democratic process, however, these multinational conglomerates have inserted themselves into the landscape of political campaigns. There are millions of Facebook users globally that own accounts free of charge. Still, to internet giants, and now the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, and Greens, the fee that users pay is their data. Shopping habits, news readership, address changes, and relationship statuses are all valuable information that can be used to influence electoral behaviour.

Every online purchase made on websites that require customers to accept cookies and privacy agreements represent a transaction of a consumer’s data to an organization’s database. These eventually translate  into the company’s profit, having leveraged the information from the user themself. Very large databases have stored valuable information on voters. At the bare minimum, Canadians should be granted access to the information that parties have on them, as well as the right for it to be corrected or deleted. With Canadians’ growing reliance on web services, our data is vulnerable. And who is the biggest potential benefactor to this digital bank heist? Politics.
Canadians can learn a few global lessons from instances of hacked elections to inform how we can approach cybersecurity issues, with reference to current events from our neighbours of the South or even with the recent Brexit phenomenon. Ultimately, the internet doesn’t complicate the representational mechanics of democracy, but it certainly reshapes how we should approach them. As Perrault astutely remarks, the great advantage of relying on traditional voting systems such as paper ballots is that "you can't hack that.”


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