Recent years have seen a worrying upswing in attempts by hackers - and, it is rumoured, foreign governments - to affect political systems worldwide. It is intriguing to imagine a shadowy group of computer geniuses, bent on achieving their own ends, pulling the strings of politicians around the globe. But how likely is it?
The media has certainly provided an inordinate amount of coverage on the topic. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that he had been targeted by hackers under the control of the Russian government during his election campaign.
Russia figures significantly in many hacking claims. In 2015, the country was accused of breaking in to the German parliament's computer network; and in the US elections last year, it was widely reported that pro-Putin hackers had leaked as many as 20,000 emails from the Democratic Party (then-president Barack Obama was concerned enough to order a full review into the election process at the end of 2016). The true extent of Russian influence on the cyber world stage, though, remains unclear.
If it's not online, it can't be hacked
The UK's election process, with votes cast using the charmingly archaic pen-and-paper method, seems to be more resilient to hacks than the computerised American system. The short time between the June election being called and taking place also makes it less open to outside interference.
That is not to say that our voting system is completely proof against fraud. Dr Guy Bunker of cyber security firm Clearswift told the i newspaper, "In a manual system, there's less verification in terms of proving who actually crossed which box. The UK election is also a slightly different beast [than the USA] because we vote, on the whole, for MPs within constituencies, rather than the singular personalities of presidential races. Because of this, interference is less likely to influence."
If the votes themselves are unlikely to be directly hacked, how else could the election be influenced? For that, we would look - again - at the email scandal that plagued the Democrats last year. Leaking private conversations and spreading fake news is the more plausible avenue for attackers to take in the UK: a less direct and more insidious way to affect peoples' voting decisions. We have already seen what could be an example of this, with the sharing of Labour's draft manifesto.
Bunker, again: "The UK election is more about nuanced news than sensationalist stories which are obviously fake… If social media accounts are hacked to share statements with enough credibility to appear viable, but mixed with lies, it's just enough to tip middle-of-the road voters one way or the other."
Prevention is better than cure
In March, GCHQ called an emergency summit, warning Britain's political parties that they were at risk from Russian cyber-attackers. Protecting the political system, GCHQ sources told the Times, was seen as "priority work."
At the same time as GCHQ was educating our politicians, Ciaran Martin, head of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), wrote to party leaders, offering assistance to protect themselves against hackers. He said, "This is not just about the network security of political parties' own systems. Attacks against our democratic processes go beyond this and can include attacks on parliament, constituency offices, think tanks and pressure groups and individuals' email accounts."
NCSC's statement was made shortly after GCHQ helped to thwart an attempted cyber-attack on the BBC's election coverage. This was traced back to a group known as Fancy Bears, a known Kremlin affiliate. In February, Martin said that as many as 188 "high-level" attacks had hit the UK in the last three months.
Today, the 22nd of May, is the last day in which UK residents can register to vote in the upcoming election.
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