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Hacking India’s Elections

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The Pulse

Hacking India’s Elections

New technology creates opportunities for democracy — and also threats.

Hacking India’s Elections
Credit: Al Jazeera English/ Goutam Roy

Politics in 2017 is a far cry from 1951-52, when India faced her first full election. The internet and other technologies create wonderful opportunities for democracy, but they also create grave threats.

President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 in the United States was historic on many fronts. Among other things, he was the first internet politician and his 2008 campaign ushered in a new era of modern, tech-savvy elections. From posting campaign videos on YouTube that were watched for over 14.5 millions hours, to sending promotional SMSs and emails to supporters, the Obama campaign not only made its poll promises and ideas freely accessible to internet and phone users all across the globe, it also turned its supporters into active and motivated campaigners who were forwarding these messages and video links to their friends and family. It is noteworthy that many of these new age “campaigners” would not have been able to contribute in a traditional door-to-door canvassing scenario — the use of internet and social media made it easier for them to support their favorite candidate’s campaign.

New Tools

The tools of campaign managers have only become more sophisticated in the eight-plus years since Obama’s first election. With over 86 percent of adult Americans using the internet, of whom 79 percent use Facebook, social media emerged as a powerful game-changing platform in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In the Indian context too, the general elections held in 2014 saw a tectonic shift in campaign strategy, with an increasing reliance on social media and smart phone applications to connect with the youth and organize them as a campaign base. The 2014 polls were eventually dubbed as “India’s first social media election.”

However, new technology goes beyond connecting with the electorate. The thriving new field of Big Data helps campaign managers gather information about each and every individual voter — their likes, their interests, and their political opinions — by combing through users’ Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media and internet activity. The U.K. firm Cambridge Analytica, which was in charge of Trump’s campaign, collected over 4,000 data points for every adult American citizen based on their their internet usage. This data was used to create a psychometric profile for each individual voter assign them into different segments. Personalized voting pitches were designed for these segments and delivered to voters’ social media accounts using targeted postings and advertisements.

With such micro-targeting, political candidates no longer need to pay attention to public discourse. Instead their energies are focused on winning every voter by making promises specific people would like to hear. Experts predict that with rapid advancements in technology, it will be possible in the future for virtual avatars of politicians to come on door-to-door campaigns and interact with individual voters, about whom these avatars would have full background information thanks to Big Data. On the metro, on your way to work, imagine yourself shaking hands with a life-size avatar of a future prime minister who is concerned about your problems and promises to resolve them.

Thus campaigning would be reduced to saying as little as possible in the public sphere to allow the candidates full leeway to say what they want privately. And, as most of private sphere would be segmented based on highly accurate data about each and every voter, eventually the political speech around us would be filtered more and more so that we hear only what we would like to hear and nothing else.

Hacking Elections: A New Battlefield

While the ethics of using these advanced tools in elections are themselves questionable, there is a much greater cause of concern — the hacking of elections. The alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections, including allegations of hacking the Democratic National Committee, has brought these issues to the forefront. Another example is Andrés Sepúlveda, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in Colombo under the charge of espionage and election hacking. In a 2016 Bloomberg story, he came out with detailed accounts of how he had rigged Latin American elections, using cyber attacks, for over a decade.

We live in the world of WikiLeaks and Twitter farms, and throughout the democratic world authorities are waking up to the fact that political establishments have become vulnerable to attacks by hackers. In May 2015, German intelligence discovered a breach of 14 servers in the Bundestag (lower house of the German parliament) network, which was later linked to an attack by hackers in Russia.

Election hackers operate by breaking into opposing party’s emails, confidential files, or social media accounts. They then publicly release embarrassing information about political opponents in the media and on the internet. In addition to that they also flood the internet and social media with fake news in order to polarize and sway voters and troll opposing party candidates through multiple accounts on social media channels.

Unfortunately, the modern election is fraught with vulnerabilities from enemies within and outside and we have only just seen the tip of the iceberg.

The India Story

As the number of internet users across world is climbing up, these strategies will become more effective in both predicting and influencing election results. If we take a look at the Indian context, the number of internet users in 2019 is projected to be over 520 million, over 50 percent of whom will be on Facebook. The penetration of smartphones is also projected to increase to 48 percent by 2019. As more Indians embrace social media platforms, it will be easier for campaign managers to customize and disseminate their messages to a well-segmented audience. As voters would be getting information not just from a party’s official accounts but also from enthusiastic supporters and volunteers, it would be difficult for them to verify the authenticity of claims. Short of arranging a coup or physically hacking the end result, the Big Data methods of social media manipulation and engineering in adverse hands could come very close to dictating the outcome of the next general elections. This should be a true nightmare for any election commissioner.

India is a young experiment in democracy. For many first time voters and other social groups the internet and smartphones may very well be the primary funnel through which they find their voice, vote, and ideology. Attempts have always been made by foreign and domestic enemies to destabilize nations and hijack elections; trying to manipulate internal political outcomes is not new. But with technology, it is becoming easier and cheaper to do so. The enemy could be anywhere.


The Election Commission (EC) is India’s pride. It has done a remarkable job in conducting elections on a scale unlike anywhere else on the planet. It is now time for it to brace for this new challenge.  There is a fine balance between encouraging free speech and regulating spread of misinformation. A digital code of conduct and rules and regulations must be drafted. At the same time, the EC has to prepare to better secure politicians and political parties’ vital information. A cyber cell should be established to monitor the campaign activities of different parties, keep an eye on fake news trending, and defend against other attacks.

India and the EC can also pay attention to the precautionary steps now being taken by global tech giants and governments.  The Indian political scene has only had a taste of both the power and threats of technology. As the country starts playing with these new toys, it is equally important to pay heed to the statutory warnings that always come with new things.

Vinayak Dalmia is an entrepreneur and social worker. He regularly writes on issues of politics, technology, and law. He can be found online on Twitter (@vinayakdalmia), Linkedin, and Medium.