Cybersecurity and digital democracy in 2020

By Luke Cavanaugh.

The new year brought with it news that Ciaran Martin, the founding head of the UK’s national cyber security unit, the NCSC, would be stepping down in the summer after almost seven years at the helm. His departure, and any subsequent changes in cybersecurity strategy, is likely to have aftershocks not just for British security, but for our sense of democracy more generally, with the government also set to shake up defence as part of a Civil Service restructuring over the course of this year.

Yet notwithstanding Brexit, Britain remains one of only two nuclear superpowers in Europe and its biggest defence spender, so these digital approaches will have to remain in line with the European strategy, with ramifications for digital democracy. And for the time being, our economic strategies will also remain aligned with the EU. Ursula Von Der Leyen’s concerns with addressing a European loss of competitiveness when it comes to US Tech Giants and Chinese Manufacturing Corporations will surely prompt some sort of action as Industry 4.0 arrives, bringing with it an inevitable industrial shift as companies try to adapt new technologies into existing sectors, and the Internet of Things becomes the new norm.

Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, has already noted how ‘technologies are blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres’, opening up a gateway to digital democracy, but equally increasing the stakes of a potential cyber threat. As European, and British, industry evolves, cybersecurity will have to evolve with it. From fake news to DDoS attacks, the proliferation of unsecured IoT devices has become an easy target for cyber criminals, with the most recent statistics from the NCSC themselves showing a 91% increase in DDoS-for-hire attacks from the first to the third quarter of 2017. Furthermore, for voters, data leaks present an increasing worry, malicious or otherwise, as the New Year’s Honours list scandal demonstrates.

And so, as economic and social priorities align more and more with digital advancements, Nesta’s Digital Democracy report still suggests that political institutions are ‘impervious’ to digitalisation despite a need for reform. Citing low turnout in elections (just 35% for local elections in England and 20% for Police and Crime Commissioners), digital democracy is offered as a solution to this problem.

But almost paradoxically, it is the very digital nature of this democracy that is preventing its widescale adoption. Or rather, a lack of trust in its safety. For the NCSC, increasing the confidence in digital and democratic systems is just as important as preventing those who seek to undermine it. Because for all the talk of a lack of safety, the ease of impersonation and the skewed data that digital democracy might bring, Nesta cites several success stories of digital democracy from around the world. Public budget allocations in France, and crowdsourcing for local improvements and party policy in Iceland, are just a couple of examples of a recent movement of participatory budgeting, petition sites, and crowdsourcing into the main.

Yet issues such as fake news, burgeoned by the media’s important role in underpinning the democratic system, have ensured that this suspicion of digital democracy has remained. Beyond GDPR regulations, the NCSC has so far committed only to ‘providing advice and guidance to local government and political parties’, maintaining that it ‘does not have a role in policing content on the internet’. Of course, that is true, and they can do little but educate people about the risks of fake news, but in order for digital democracy to flourish, there has to now be a sustained focus on this education and on removing the distrust of a new technological sphere.

Another story that has recently dominated headlines is the British government’s deal with Huawei to provide 5G infrastructure across the country, in particular the US’s reaction to it. Citing cybersecurity concerns, overlaid with accusations of surveillance and espionage, the eyes and ears of the world have been attuned to an increasingly desperately repeated message: Huawei is a risk.

Following the British Government’s decision to ignore the advice of Washington, President Trump’s phone call with the Prime Minister was described as ‘apoplectic’, with Thomas Wright from the Brookings Institute adding that ‘the significance of the phone call is that Trump is very engaged and very upset and that this is not going to blow over and it will have implications if not on Five Eyes then on Trade Talks’. A threat to Five Eyes, a shared intelligence platform, at such a time as the UK’s defence relationship with the EU is in transition, adds further complications to the NCSC’s role, and underscores a national concern with cybersecurity.

But as Ciaran Martin’s successor takes to the world stage later this year, it is clear that the infrastructure required to bolster cybersecurity is not merely physical but also intellectual, driven by a belief that not only are methods of digital democracy results-yielding and fair, but that they can be delivered in a secure way. Tackling this problem is only the beginning as far as digital democracy is concerned, but it is nevertheless an important place to start.

Luke Cavanaugh is an English student at the University of Cambridge interested in defence, industry, and the wider consequences of new digital infrastructures.

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