Countering cyber attacks: US e-mail hack shows democracies have greater handicap

In the recent past, there have been demands in the US to probe allegations that some of the voting machines may have been hacked during the presidential elections.

Countering cyber attacks: US e-mail hack shows democracies have greater handicap

In the recent past, there have been demands in the US to probe allegations that some of the voting machines may have been hacked during the presidential elections. Responding to such concerns, a senior US administration official noted that the “election results….accurately reflect the will of the American people.” The US administration official went on to add the US government issued warnings to a foreign power to refrain from indulging in malicious cyber activity on the Election Day.

The Wikileaks e-mail disclosures involving Hillary Clinton and other leaders of the Democratic Party could have had a substantial impact on the presidential elections. The e-mail accounts of senior leaders of the US Democratic National Committee (DNC) were hacked. Tens of thousands of e-mails were released at regular intervals. Based on these leaks, questions were raised about the impartiality of the DNC during primaries. Some have argued that the Wikileaks brought into relief the unfair political practices that often go undetected and demonstrated the need for greater transparency as well as accountability in political parties. Nonetheless, the concerns about hacking and the Wikileaks e-mail disclosures point to the challenges that democracies face in the digital age.

Deliberation is at the heart of democracy. Deliberation requires safe environments in which people can articulate their views freely. It is such articulation and subsequent discussions that enable citizens to fine-tune their opinions. Deliberative practices in a democracy are premised on the belief that people have access to information that is not intentionally designed to mislead.

The Wikileaks e-mail disclosure and the information contained therein raised ethical and political questions. Can e-mail conversations, where there is no wrong doing, be published in the public realm without the consent of individuals concerned? Who decides if there is a criminal misconduct that merits large scale disclosure of private conversations? There will be absence of reliable information as to how many of the accessed e-mails were disclosed. If certain e-mails have been withheld, then what variables went into such decisions?

Further, conversations constitute a multi-stage process through which an individual learns more about his/her own opinions, which often witness significant alterations. Therefore, the disclosure of information, without reference to the stage of the conversation, will ensure that opinions get publicised in their raw form. Attribution of views, in such raw form, to individuals who have articulated them is problematic. Such disclosure sometimes can be an act of injustice, as it does not capture the complex cogitative process that people endure during opinion formation. Therefore, random disclosures of conversations will ensure that people will be very reluctant to articulate their views. Such constrained discussions are not healthy for deliberative democracies.

In a non-digital world, the person whose rights are being violated, often, is aware of such violation. However, in the digital world, the victims are not only unaware but are also made aware of the breach at chosen time by the perpetrator. The Wikileaks e-mail disclosures bring forth the salience of ‘timing,’ as it happened in the midst volatile presidential campaign, and the release of information often undermined the popularity of Hillary Clinton.

The Wikileaks episode also demonstrates new modes of intervention by external players in domestic politics of a country. Various news agencies have carried out reports suggesting that the “leaks” have a Russian hand. If it indeed the case, then it indicates that even a superpower like the US, with expensive firewalls and all other cyber-security paraphernalia, is vulnerable to the systematic cyber attacks. More importantly, the concept of rigged elections acquires a different connotation, as the election discourse has been rigged by a foreign power. Through selective leaks, external actors can fundamentally alter the political discourse in favour of a candidate or induce political instability. Such techniques constitute a low-cost and high-impact form of intervention in other countries.

This also proves that democracies are at a greater disadvantage than non-democracies in responding to cyber attacks. Illiberal regimes by their very definition control information flow. As a consequence, they will be in a better position to prevent information warfare by external actors. On the other hand, democracies by definition have to allow free flow of information, which makes it easier for foreign players to modulate the thinking of society, even if it is temporarily so. Falsehood and innuendo can be circulated extensively as truth, in the form of a “leak”, before its credibility is questioned. Thus, in the virtual world, democracies are facing the choice between the devil and deep sea. If the governments decide not to curb inaccurate information dissemination, then the democratic process will be undermined. On the other hand, if the government seeks to clamp down on the internet-based inaccurate information flows, then it will be subjected to very harsh criticism for its alleged illiberal tendencies.

The mainstream print media is also coming under increasing stress. The fact that the e-mails have been hacked and leaked constitutes ‘news’ and therefore needs to be reported. However, reporting the leak may be perceived as validation of the leaks by ordinary newspaper readers. Therefore, the reportage has to be carefully constructed on these issues. One wonders if readers, without substantive training, can pick up such nuanced arguments.

The Wikileaks e-mail disclosure has implications for India as well. The world’s largest democracy is increasingly getting digitised. Large numbers of the electorate are consuming news through digital medium and online/mobile based election campaigns are increasing in intensity. In the coming years, external actors will have the ability to determine the political discourse in India, through ‘leaks’ with greater intensity. It is important for all the stakeholders to start reflecting on appropriate responses to stem the inaccurate information flows without necessarily undermining the principle of free expression.

Sanjay Pulipaka
& M Shuheb Khan

The authors work at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER),

New Delhi. Pulipaka can be reached at and Khan can be reached at

Views are personal

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