Can we secure democracy in these times of cyber warfare?

Can we secure democracy in these times of cyber warfare?

2024 is going to be a bumper year for elections across the globe. It is also predicted to be a bumper year for cybercrime as AI’s true power comes to the fore. The crossover between the two means that not only has the battleground for democracy shifted into the digital arena, the entire election process itself is under cyber threat, says Gilchrist Mushwana, Director at BDO South Africa and Head of Cybersecurity Service Line. Here he discusses the evolving landscape of cybersecurity and its profound impact on the democratic process.

According to Time Magazine, globally, more voters than ever in history will head to the polls as at least 64 countries are meant to hold national elections, with 15 of these countries being in Africa. This represents a combined population of about 49% of the global population. The results for many will prove consequential for years to come, and will also determine who governs more than 50% of the world’s GDP.

Unfortunately, although these acts of democracy give millions of people a voice, simply holding an election does not mean the process will be free or fair. Especially as the rapid adoption of digital is predicted to result in some of the most potent cyberattacks in 2024.

With the proliferation of technologies such as generative AI and their use by cyber adversaries
becoming more widespread, safeguarding the integrity and fairness of the electoral process becomes of paramount importance. However, It is worth noting that while generative AI will add to the complexity of attacks, it is not the only concern in relation to the rise in cybercriminal activity due
to geopolitical tensions.

Cybercrime is no longer simply about hacking into IT systems to access and exploit information. Sophisticated digital tech is now also being used to cause major social disruption, fanning the flames of geopolitical tensions by being the catalyst for misinformation, disinformation, and fake news.

A reimagined threat landscape

To understand the cybercrime and election security nexus, it is important to understand exactly what threats we are up against.

AI-powered algorithms are being leveraged to amplify false narratives and sow public discord. Misinformation - false or misleading information spread unwittingly - and its more sinister counterpart, disinformation – information disseminated with the intent to deceive – has never been more prevalent across social media platforms. In fact, World Economic Forum survey named misinformation and disinformation from AI as the top global risk over the next two years — ahead of climate change and war. These are targeted tactics to specifically manipulate public opinion, undermine trust in democratic processes, and ultimately sway election outcomes.

Another concerning trend is the emergence of model information, a deceptive technique that uses AI-generated content to mimic real communication. Deepfake videos, AI-generated articles, and false social media profiles increasingly blur the line between truth and fiction, making it challenging for voters to separate fact from fiction.

Essentially AI enables cybercriminals to launch highly coordinated and targeted attacks with very little need for human intervention. Deep learning algorithms can analyse vast amounts of data to identify vulnerabilities, exploit loopholes in cybersecurity defences, and orchestrate large-scale disinformation campaigns. As AI evolves, so do the capabilities of malicious actors, posing a significant challenge to election integrity worldwide.

In terms of disruption, rogue actors, extremists and even opposing electoral parties in some cases are increasingly leveraging cyber capabilities to undermine election communication, destabilise governments, and generally create chaos.

The consequences of these cyber threats extend far beyond the ballot box. A compromised election erodes public trust in democracy, undermines the legitimacy of elected leaders, and fuels social and political polarisation.

Looking at election security through a local lens

While South Africa’s election date is still to be announced, the country faces the same security concerns as our global counterparts. We do however have an additional challenge when it comes to cyber tactics which is the vast digital divide the country grapples with.

Along with a lack of digital skills development in some areas, connectivity is another bottleneck for development. Without good internet access, owning a technological device has little to no benefit. Data costs are high and ICT infrastructure is weak in many areas. These factors leave the door wide open for bad actors to intensify disinformation or fake news campaigns that leave little room for fact checking or debunking.

There is also a massive gap in awareness and education around cybercrime – not only in terms of elections – but across the board which leaves many people increasingly vulnerable. How do we combat this? Unfortunately there is no silver bullet. A long-term strategy would include working towards strengthening controls in terms of regulating technology to temper the capability of people to manipulate information, while at the same time investing in further education so that citizens are able to critically analyse information that is presented to them.

2024 will be a test of global resilience

We can’t predict how cybercrime will impact the outcome of global elections. The rapid rate of digital transformation has essentially levelled the playing field because we have yet to see the extent to which bad actors will go to disrupt or a successful cyber defence strategy from any country come into play.

All we do know is that 2024 is not just an election year, but rather the election year that will form the litmus test for cyber resilience in a new era.