Data protection & Democracy – Cyber attacks on elections

What effects do fake news have on elections? Could cyber attacks be a danger for democracy? We interviewed Dr Ben Scott, former advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and member of the Management Board, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung.

Dr Ben Scott elections

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Dr Scott, you served as the coordinator of technology and innovation policy for the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election in the US. What is your opinion and experience regarding hacking and fake news in election campaigns?

Dr Ben Scott: The combination of digital disruptions in the 2016 election cycle has been sufficient to call into question the bedrock of American democracy – the integrity of elections. The extraordinary events of the 2016 Presidential election demand a robust response. Yet we know little about the relative influence of any one of these agents of „digital disruption“ in the integrity of the election process.

Many people in Germany are afraid that there might be hacking attacks in the federal election – “Bundestagswahl 2017” – this September in Germany. Would it be naïve to think that this won´t happen?

Dr Ben Scott: A cyber attack that compromises one party could also effect the elections in Germany. This is why we should start finding answers to some of the most pressing questions. Is it reasonable for a government to demand (or legislate) that political parties comply with high standards of cyber-security and enforcement? Or would this threaten the independence of political parties and cast suspicion on the motives of the parties in power vis-a-vis their opposition? If these security standards cannot easily be regulated, what incentives might be established to solve the problem through self-interest or market forces?

In your opinion what could be done to minimize digital disinformation, fake news and hacking during the election campaigns and the elections themselves?

Dr Ben Scott: Looking at the parade of problems at the intersection of digital technology and elections, it is tempting to conclude that the overall impact of digital technology on democratic government is now decisively a net negative. We are no longer in the days of the early Internet when the technology was heralded as a great equalizer in political power dynamics. We have certainly entered a new era of intensified cyber-threat to democratic institutions. But the reality is that digital disruption cuts both ways. Technology is a tool that amplifies the pre-existing motives of its users. The task at hand is to identify sensible ways to maximize the benefits while guarding against the risks. Technology is not going away. Democracy must learn to live with it.

Dr Ben Scott is a member of the executive board of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) – a Berlin-based public policy think tank working at the intersection of technology and social change. He is also Senior Adviser at New America’s Open Technology Institute in Washington DC. During the 2016 presidential election in the US, he served as the coordinator of technology and innovation policy advisers for the Hillary Clinton campaign. From 2010-2012, Ben Scott was Policy Advisor for Innovation at the US Department of State where he worked at the intersection of technology and foreign policy to steward Secretary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft agenda. Prior to joining the State Department, for six years he led the Washington office for Free Press, a public interest organization in the US dedicated to protecting the open Internet and public service journalism. Before joining Free Press, he worked as a legislative aide handling telecommunications policy for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders in the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds a PhD in communications from the University of Illinois.