Before the next general election, Conservatives will rightly be thinking about policies, messages, communications, digital campaigning, and how to best to demonstrate that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party are not fit to run the country. All vital – but it’s increasingly clear that that list of priorities will need to include cyber security as well.
There is a near hundred per cent chance that someone – whether foreign or domestic – will attempt to use cyberattacks to cause chaos and disruption to the campaign. I experienced this at first hand running Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, and anyone who has paid attention to politics in my country will have noticed that hacking became a live issue in 2016 as well.
It’s been an unusual learning curve for many of us in the US over the last few years. I certainly didn’t start working in Republican politics with the idea that I would one day have sleepless nights over Chinese hackers and Russian bots. But that is the world that we now live and run political campaigns in.
This is why I have teamed up with Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, to co-lead the Defending Digital Democracy project. The initiative is sponsored by the Belfer Center at Harvard University and co-led by Eric Rosenbach, former chief of staff to Barack Obama’s last Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter. The initiative brings together experts in the politics, national-security and the tech world to develop strategies and technology to protect campaigns from cyberattacks. We may not have much in common politically, but we do believe in the moral necessity of ensuring that elections are decided by American voters, not by hackers.
And the UK should be no different. Robby Mook and I are speaking in Brussels about cybersecurity, and the vital role it will play in election campaigns – on a panel jointly organised by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. We want to share our experience from running US campaigns, so that parties and campaigners in the UK and Europe can be prepared for what they will face over the next few years.
And let’s be clear – it’s not just foreign governments that are a threat to the integrity of elections in Britain. It could just as easily come from an extreme anti-capitalist group, or technologically savvy neo-fascists, whose only goal is to cause chaos and undermine the democratic process. Call for cross-party consensus on certain issues are not new, and often become clichéd. But when it comes to ensuring that elections are contested on a level playing field, it is vital for political parties to engage with each other on a level above the day-to-day fight.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these problems- though there are some basic security steps that we would advise any campaign to take. Dealing with the systemic and technical challenges is however far beyond the capability of any party. The tech world that underpins nearly every aspect of our daily lives is governed by a few huge companies – all of whom have a responsibility to work constructively with national governments to ensure that the democratic process is safe from interference.
ConservativeHome readers are more likely than most to give up hours of their precious free time to knock on doors, deliver leaflets, and campaign for Conservative candidates in local and national elections. It would be a tragedy if that hard work was undermined because the technology that we rely on to fight elections wasn’t properly protected.