US authorities have arrested a reportedly shady character who goes by the alias ‘Severa’ in Spain. Severa, whose real name is Pyotr Levashov, is a Russian spammer who is listed at Number 7 in Spamhaus’ Top 10 Spammer list. It’s alleged Severa was involved in the “hacking” of the recent US Presidential election. But what is hacking an election? Aren’t all elections “hacked” in the sense that parties dig up and release dirt on each other in the hope of influencing the outcome?
Elections are won by influencing voters. Candidates want to influence their constituents to actually vote, influence opposition voters to stay home, and persuade swinging voters to cast a ballot in their favour.
The old view of election hacking was limited to tampering with actual votes – either “losing” a bunch of ballots, electoral fraud, or as my friend Hugh Thompson did for a TV show back in the 1990s, hacking electronic voting machines.
When we look at the events leading to the election of Donald Trump (that is a sentence I never thought I’d type outside of a novel about a dystopian future) it is clear that events transpired that altered the course of a very close election.
Emails were leaked from the Democratic National Congress by Wikileaks that painted Hillary Clinton and the Democratic leadership as dishonest and manipulative. The Director of the FBI announced, a week before the poll, that the use of a private email server by Clinton was under possible investigation. And there was a constant undercurrent suggesting the Russian government was trying to alter the most probable election outcome – a win by Clinton.
Influencing election outcomes is exactly what election campaigns are meant to do. But before this campaign the discovery and leaking of sensitive information was done by the election campaigns. What we saw in the US Presidential campaign was influence by external factors.
Wikileaks hacked DNC email and released the contents. The FBI, a supposedly neutral party, announced an investigation into Clinton’s email a week before the election.
Digging up dirt and releasing it to the media has been the stock-in-trade of campaign directors for many years. If election hacking is about finding hidden information and releasing it to change voter opinion, then this has been happening for a very long time.
But if a foreign government is found to have involved in altering the course of the presidential election with the consent of a candidate then we have moved into an entirely new era.
I recently worked with well known hacker Kevin Mitnick at an event in Melbourne. Mitnick said he had a 100% success rate breaking into organisations when he had access to people from within a company.
The US Presidential election is the result of ‘opinion hacking’ where registered Democrats were encouraged to stay home, over actions the DNC allegedly took to sideline the Sanders campaign, details that were revealed in the leaked emails, along with claims the FBI was reopening its investigation into Clinton’s use of personal email servers
It’s unlikely such an event could happen in Australia. Our electoral system is markedly different to the US Electoral College where each state is a “winner takes all” block of votes. And we have never had, except perhaps Mark Latham (in my opinion) a candidate who was utterly unsuitable to be Prime Minister. But in Trump, we have a President with no experience in the operations of government, no foreign policy experience and a checkered past involving bankruptcies and claims of sexist behaviour including allegations of sexual assault.
In a very close election, there is no doubt the actions of external parties influenced the outcome of the poll. In a sense, the election was hacked, but into just through technology.