The alarming escalation of cyberattacks across the globe has raised concerns among both the infosec community as well as international governments. Large-scale cyberespionage campaigns targeting high-profile political parties and other such organisations have recently rocked the globe. Election hacking has become a major concern for European nations. With the upcoming general election in the UK, tensions have escalated and cyber-defences ramped up in anticipation of potential cyberattacks.
However, how likely is it that hackers may launch a massive cyberattack targeting UK's election? IBTimes UK spoke to experts in the cybersecurity community to understand how vulnerable British political parties and voters may be to a targeted cyberespionage campaign. This article also explores how likely it is that an attack, similar to the one that affected the US DNC (Democratic National Committee) and more recently newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron's political party, may also surface in the UK.
"I believe the question is not if but how will malicious actors target the UK general election," Oz Alashe, co-founder of security firm CybSafe, who formerly served as a cybersecurity expert in the British Army, told IBTimes UK. "Most likely they will direct their effort at swing seats with the tightest majorities, and there are a number of tactics that an actor could employ on these targets."
Alashe said that cybercriminals' top priorities would be to "attempt to access the private communications of election candidates." Email and social media accounts could likely be targeted to launch attacks, extort people and even dig for more information on friends, family and colleagues. He added that hackers may also use "more direct" methods such as DDoS attacks during the election.
"If the UK election is going to be hacked, it'll most likely come from within," Chris Pogue, a member of the US Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force and the CISO at security firm Nuix told IBTimes UK. "Pointing the blame towards external actors from foreign states plays so neatly into political narratives because, frankly, not enough people understand the nature of cybercrime."
Cyberattacks attempting to influence voters
The immersive nature of technology today means that everyone has a discoverable digital footprint, which cybercriminals can use to pinpoint current political and cultural perspectives and design attacks to potentially manipulate voters.
"Simple attacks with maximum impact could include defacing party websites at election time and the manipulation of social media could create false waves of enthusiasm and derision to influence voters," Alashe said.
Alashe also stressed the importance of voters trusting the government and its intelligence and cybersecurity agencies in dealing with such incidents. In such cases, voters have also been cautioned to take any data leak with a pinch of salt and question who would most benefit from such leaks or cyberattacks.
"Before pointing fingers at the Russians or Chinese, voters should follow the lead of the police. If there is election tampering, they would first ask who has the most to benefit. They would explore who has the means, method and motive to bring into question the validity of the election," Pogue said.
How can the British government avoid falling victim to election hacking?
"During an election campaign, hacking attempts may not be limited to just targeting the MP, but potentially their large team of staffers, politicians, candidates and the teams that support them," Alashe said. He explained that the ramped up pressures for greater communication during election time can lead to those involved with political parties' campaigns taking more risks, such as using insecure systems or connecting to unknown Wi-Fi hotspots.
"The best defence is to ensure the entire team is aware of the risks that are present, preferably ensuring they have appropriate training to learn how to recognise attacks," he added. "Individuals pose the greatest risk to the UK government, they can inadvertently circumvent even the most stringent security measures by falling victim to a simple phishing attack or accidentally installing malware."
"Government agencies must protect themselves with solutions that cover both the perimeter defences and now more than ever, their end points. Specifically servers, desktops and laptops," Pogue said. "Rather a pro-active prevention method is needed if the UK, and any other government for that matter, wants to start tipping the scales in their favour."
The GCHQ has already warned British political parties about a potential threat from Kremlin-linked hacker group Fancy Bear, which experts say may also be behind the recent Macron leaks and the infamous DNC hack. Whether the British intelligence agencies' awareness of the potential threats helps in successfully defending against potential attacks, remains to be seen.