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EU election season and securing online democracy

by Caroline Greer.

It’s election season in Europe, as European Parliament seats are contested across the European Union by national political parties. With approximately 400 million people eligible to vote, this is one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world - second only to India - and it takes place once every five years.

Over the course of four days, 23-26 May 2019, each of the 28 EU countries will elect a different number of Members of the European Parliament (“MEPs”) roughly mapped to population size and based on a proportional system. The 751 newly elected MEPs (a number which includes the UK’s allocation for the time being) will take their seats in July. These elections are not only important because the European Parliament plays a large role in the EU democratic system, being a co-legislator alongside the European Council, but as the French President Emmanuel Macron has described, these European elections will be decisive for the future of the continent.

Election security: an EU political priority

Political focus on the potential cybersecurity threat to the EU elections has been extremely high, and various EU institutions and agencies have been engaged in a long campaign to drive awareness among EU Member States and to help political parties prepare. Last month for example, more than 80 representatives from the European Parliament, EU Member States, the European Commission and the European Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) gathered for a table-top exercise to test the EU's response to potential incidents. The objective of the exercise was to test the efficacy of EU Member States’ practices and crisis plans, to acquire an overview of the level of resilience across the EU, and to identify potential gaps and adequate mitigation measures.

Earlier this year, ENISA published a paper on EU-wide election security which described how as a result of the large attack surface that is inherent to elections, the risks do not only concern government election systems but also extend to individual candidates and individual political campaigns. Examples of attack vectors that affect election processes can include spear phishing, data theft, online disinformation, malware, and DDoS attacks. ENISA went on to propose that election systems, processes and infrastructures be classified as critical infrastructure, and that a legal obligation be put in place requiring political organisations to deploy a high level of cybersecurity.

Last September, in his State of the Union address, European Commission President Juncker announced a package of initiatives aimed at ensuring that the EU elections are organised in a free, fair and secure manner. EU Member States subsequently set up a national cooperation network of relevant authorities – such as electoral, cybersecurity, data protection and law enforcement authorities – and appointed contact points to take part in a European cooperation network for elections.

In July 2018, the Cooperation Group set up under the EU NIS Directive (composed of Member States, the European Commission and ENISA) issued a detailed report, "Compendium on Cyber Security of Election Technology". The report outlined how election processes typically extend over a long life cycle, consisting of several phases, and the presentation layer is as important as the correct vote count and protection of the interface where citizens learn of the election results. Estonia - a country that is known to be a digital leader when it comes to eGovernment services - is currently the only EU country that offers its citizens the option to cast their ballot online. However, even electoral systems that rely exclusively on paper voting typically take advantage of digital tools and services in compiling voter rolls, candidate registration or result tabulation and communication.

The report described various election/cyber incidents witnessed at EU Member State level and the methods used. As the electoral systems vary greatly across the EU, the NIS Cooperation Group ultimately recommended that tools, procedures, technologies and protection measures should follow a “pick and mix” approach which can include DDoS protection, network flow analysis and monitoring, and use of a CDN. Cloudflare provides all these services and more, helping to prevent the defacement of public-facing websites and Denial of Service attacks, and ensuring the high availability and performance of web pages which need to be capable of withstanding a significant traffic load at peak times.

Cloudflare’s election security experience

Cloudflare’s CTO John Graham-Cumming recently spoke at a session in Brussels which explored Europe’s cyber-readiness for the EU elections. He outlined that while sophisticated cyber attacks are on the rise, humans can often be the weakest link. Strong password protection, two factor authentication and a keen eye for phishing scams can go a long way in thwarting attackers’ attempts to penetrate campaign and voting web properties. John also described Cloudflare’s experience in running the Athenian Project, which provides free enterprise-level services to government election and voter registration websites.

Source: Politico

Cloudflare has protected most of the major U.S Presidential campaign websites from cyberattacks, including the Trump/Pence campaign website, the website for the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, and websites for 14 of the 15 leading candidates from the two  political parties. We have also protected election websites in countries like Peru, Ecuador and, most recently, North Macedonia.

Is Europe cyber-ready?

Thanks to the high profile awareness campaign across the EU, Europeans have had time to prepare and to look for solutions according to their needs. Election interference is certainly not a new phenomenon, however, the scale of the current threat is unprecedented and clever disinformation campaigns are also now in play. Experts have recently identified techniques such as spear phishing and DDoS attacks as particular threats to watch for, and the European Commission has been monitoring industry progress under the Code of Practice on Disinformation which has encouraged platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to take action to fight against malicious bots and fake accounts.

What is clear is that this can only ever be a coordinated effort, with both governments and industry working together to ensure a robust response to any threats to the democratic process. For its part, Cloudflare is protecting a number of political group websites across the EU and we have been seeing Layer 4 and Layer 7 DDoS attacks, as well as pen testing and firewall probing attempts. Incidents this month have included attacks against Swedish, French, Spanish and UK web properties, with particularly high activity across the board around 8th May. As the elections approach, we can expect the volume/spread of attacks to increase.

Further information about the European elections can be found here - and if you are based in Europe, don’t forget to vote!

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