The months ahead of elections are the ones when liberal democracies tend to be most vulnerable. This has rarely been as pronounced as in recent years, with electoral divides widening across Europe and North America and with the emergence of another playing field for states aiming to exploit those divisions: cyberspace.
France, Germany and the United States are among countries hit by foreign governmental attacks since 2016, in which parties or parliaments were specifically targeted. Australia appears to be the latest victim of such an attack, after conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Monday that the country’s parliament and all major parties across the political spectrum were affected. A limited intrusion of parliamentary computer networks first came to light about two weeks ago, but a subsequent investigation revealed a far more extensive cyberattack.
Morrison said the intrusion had been planned by a “sophisticated state actor,” but he refrained from blaming any suspects. The attack, he said, had not resulted in a breach of electoral systems.
It is unclear how sophisticated the hack was, but the extent of the intrusion suggests a level of expertise that is usually associated with larger adversaries, such as Moscow or Beijing. The government in Canberra has accused both countries of hacks targeting Australian entities in recent years, but Beijing’s political interests in the region are likely to make China the key public suspect in this or any future intrusion.
Elections in Australia are expected to be held at some point before the end of May, and China has become a point of contention. Some have cautioned that Morrison’s less conciliatory approach could jeopardize its economic ties with the giant regional partner. His government banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G mobile communications network last year — before major other allies announced similar moves. Morrison’s Liberal Party has also introduced stricter laws against foreign government interference, even though critics warned those steps would do little to prevent foreign meddling, but could significantly disrupt trade and diplomatic ties.
As part of the so-called Five Eyes Alliance, Australia remains a key security ally of the United States with a shared interest in countering Chinese influence, even though its deepening economic ties with Beijing have raised questions about the sustainability of such an approach.
An estimated 1.39 billion people live in China, whereas Australia’s population is about 25 million. China’s gross domestic product was already about 10 times as high as Australia’s last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which also found China would account for more than 35 percent of global growth between 2017 and this year, compared to Australia’s far smaller 1.8 percent. (Tariffs imposed on China by the Trump administration since those IMF figures were released may lower Chinese growth in the short run.)
Finding the right approach in dealing with its biggest trading partner, China, has proved to be a minefield for all Australian parties. Amid economic concerns and pressure from state governments, Morrison has recently attempted a more careful balancing act in rebooting economic and diplomatic ties to Beijing, while maintaining a critical stance on the country’s treatment of the Uighur community and human rights activists, for instance.
Those considerations probably would play into any decision by Australia to publicly blame key suspects in the most recent cyber hack. But even if the incident does not trigger yet another diplomatic spat, the hack will contribute to concerns that China or any other foreign state actor may be looking for ways to turn the country’s foreign dependencies into political leverage, as Russia has attempted before.
Both China and Russia, analysts say, are pursuing the same strategy by sowing doubts among voters about the integrity of election processes through hacks and subsequent leaks.
In 2016, the Russians allegedly handed over emails to WikiLeaks after hacking the Democratic National Committee, during a campaign in which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump urged Russia to hack the email servers of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival. (Then-FBI Director James B. Comey later said that some Republican National Committee networks were also hacked. The extracted files were not leaked, however.) Months later, French presidential-candidate Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement became the target of another attack, which was later blamed on Russian state actors.
Both incidents occurred in countries where Russia was thought to have far better ties with the opposition than with the incumbent party. France’s far-right party openly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Trump vowed to reboot relations.
Ironically, Australia was among the first Western nations to experience how vulnerable its online communications were to foreign nations. Media outlets in the country reported in 2011 that Chinese hackers had gained access to the country’s parliamentary communications and may have extracted thousands of confidential emails and documents.
Eight years on, there’s a growing consensus that leaks and privacy breaches in liberal democracies appear to have become the new normal — in France, in the United States and in Australia.
“We are not exempt or immune,” Bill Shorten, the Australian Labor Party leader, said Monday.
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