Hand of a person casting a ballot at a polling station during voting.

Defending Democratic Mechanisms and Institutions against Information Attacks

By Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier


To better understand influence attacks, we proposed an approach that models democracy itself as an information system and explains how democracies are vulnerable to certain forms of information attacks that autocracies naturally resist. Our model combines ideas from both international security and computer security, avoiding the limitations of both in explaining how influence attacks may damage democracy as a whole.

Our initial account is necessarily limited. Building a truly comprehensive understanding of democracy as an information system will be a Herculean labor, involving the collective endeavors of political scientists and theorists, computer scientists, scholars of complexity, and others.

In this short paper, we undertake a more modest task: providing policy advice to improve the resilience of democracy against these attacks. Specifically, we can show how policy makers not only need to think about how to strengthen systems against attacks, but also need to consider how these efforts intersect with public beliefs – or common political knowledge – about these systems, since public beliefs may themselves be an important vector for attacks.

Common Knowledge and Social Aggregation Mechanisms

In democracies, many important political decisions are taken by ordinary citizens (typically, in electoral democracies, by voting for political representatives). This means that citizens need to have some shared understandings about their political system, and that the society needs some means of generating shared information regarding who their citizens are and what they want. We call this common political knowledge, and it is largely generated through mechanisms of social aggregation (and the institutions that implement them), such as voting, censuses, and the like. These are imperfect mechanisms, but essential to the proper functioning of democracy. They are often compromised or non-existent in autocratic regimes, since they are potentially threatening to the rulers.

In modern democracies, the most important such mechanism is voting, which aggregates citizens’ choices over competing parties and politicians to determine who is to control executive power for a limited period. Another important mechanism is the census process, which play an important role in the US and in other democracies, in providing broad information about the population, in shaping the electoral system (through the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives), and in policy making (through the allocation of government spending and resources). Of lesser import are public commenting processes, through which individuals and interest groups can comment on significant public policy and regulatory decisions.

All of these systems are vulnerable to attack. Elections are vulnerable to a variety of illegal manipulations, including vote rigging. However, many kinds of manipulation are currently legal in the US, including many forms of gerrymandering, gimmicking voting time, allocating polling booths and resources so as to advantage or disadvantage particular populations, imposing onerous registration and identity requirements, and so on.

Censuses may be manipulated through the provision of bogus information or, more plausibly, through the skewing of policy or resources so that some populations are undercounted. Many of the political battles over the census over the past few decades have been waged over whether the census should undertake statistical measures to counter undersampling bias for populations who are statistically less likely to return census forms, such as minorities and undocumented immigrants. Current efforts to include a question about immigration status may make it less likely that undocumented or recent immigrants will return completed forms.

Finally, public commenting systems too are vulnerable to attacks intended to misrepresent the support for or opposition to specific proposals, including the formation of astroturf (artificial grassroots) groups and the misuse of fake or stolen identities in large-scale mail, fax, email or online commenting systems.

All these attacks are relatively well understood, even if policy choices might be improved by a better understanding of their relationship to shared political knowledge. For example, some voting ID requirements are rationalized through appeals to security concerns about voter fraud. While political scientists have suggested that these concerns are largely unwarranted, we currently lack a framework for evaluating the tradeoffs, if any. Computer security concepts such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability could be combined with findings from political science and political theory to provide such a framework.

Even so, the relationship between social aggregation institutions and public beliefs is far less well understood by policy makers. Even when social aggregation mechanisms and institutions are robust against direct attacks, they may be vulnerable to more indirect attacks aimed at destabilizing public beliefs about them.

Confidence Attacks Against Social Aggregation Mechanisms

Democratic societies are vulnerable to (at least) two kinds of knowledge attacks that autocratic societies are not. First are flooding attacks that create confusion among citizens about what other citizens believe, making it far more difficult for them to organize among themselves. Second are confidence attacks. These attempt to undermine public confidence in the institutions of social aggregation, so that their results are no longer broadly accepted as legitimate representations of the citizenry.

Most obviously, democracies will function poorly when citizens do not believe that voting is fair. This makes democracies vulnerable to attacks aimed at destabilizing public confidence in voting institutions. For example, some of Russia’s hacking efforts against the 2016 presidential election were designed to undermine citizens’ confidence in the result. Russian hacking attacks against Ukraine, which targeted the systems through which election results were reported out, were intended to create confusion among voters about what the outcome actually was. Similarly, the “Guccifer 2.0” hacking identity, which has been attributed to Russian military intelligence, sought to suggest that the US electoral system had been compromised by the Democrats in the days immediately before the presidential vote. If, as expected, Donald Trump had lost the election, these claims could have been combined with the actual evidence of hacking to create the appearance that the election was fundamentally compromised.

Similar attacks against the perception of fairness are likely to be employed against the 2020 US census. Should efforts to include a citizenship question fail, some political actors who are disadvantaged by demographic changes such as increases in foreign-born residents and population shift from rural to urban and suburban areas will mount an effort to delegitimize the census results. Again, the genuine problems with the census, which include not only the citizenship question controversy but also serious underfunding, may help to bolster these efforts.

Mechanisms that allow interested actors and ordinary members of the public to comment on proposed policies are similarly vulnerable. For example, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) announced in 2017 that it was proposing to repeal its net neutrality ruling. Interest groups backing the FCC rollback correctly anticipated a widespread backlash from a politically active coalition of net neutrality supporters. The result was warfare through public commenting. More than 22 million comments were filed, most of which appeared to be either automatically generated or form letters. Millions of these comments were apparently fake, and attached unsuspecting people’s names and email addresses to comments supporting the FCC’s repeal efforts. The vast majority of comments that were not either form letters or automatically generated opposed the FCC’s proposed ruling. The furor around the commenting process was magnified by claims from inside the FCC (later discredited) that the commenting process had also been subjected to a cyberattack.

We do not yet know the identity and motives of the actors behind the flood of fake comments, although the New York State Attorney-General’s office has issued subpoenas for records from a variety of lobbying and advocacy organizations. However, by demonstrating that the commenting process was readily manipulated, the attack made it less likely that the apparently genuine comments of those opposing the FCC’s proposed ruling would be treated as useful evidence of what the public believed. The furor over purported cyberattacks, and the FCC’s unwillingness itself to investigate the attack, have further undermined confidence in an online commenting system that was intended to make the FCC more open to the US public.

Implications for Public Policy

We do not know nearly enough about how democracies function as information systems. Generating a better understanding is itself a major policy challenge, which will require substantial resources and, even more importantly, common understandings and shared efforts across a variety of fields of knowledge that currently don’t really engage with each other.

However, even this basic sketch of democracy’s informational aspects can provide policy makers with some key lessons. The most important is that it may be as important to bolster shared public beliefs about key institutions such as voting, public commenting, and census taking against attack, as to bolster the mechanisms and related institutions themselves.
Specifically, many efforts to mitigate attacks against democratic systems begin with spreading public awareness and alarm about their vulnerabilities. This has the benefit of increasing awareness about real problems, but it may — especially if exaggerated for effect — damage public confidence in the very social aggregation institutions it means to protect. This may mean, for example, that public awareness efforts about Russian hacking that are based on flawed analytic techniques may themselves damage democracy by exaggerating the consequences of attacks.

More generally, this poses important challenges for policy efforts to secure social aggregation institutions against attacks. How can one best secure the systems themselves without damaging public confidence in them? At a minimum, successful policy measures will not simply identify problems in existing systems, but provide practicable, publicly visible, and readily understandable solutions to mitigate them.

Conclusions

We have focused on the problem of confidence attacks in this short essay, because they are both more poorly understood and more profound than flooding attacks. Given historical experience, democracy can probably survive some amount of disinformation about citizens’ beliefs better than it can survive attacks aimed at its core institutions of aggregation. Policy makers need a better understanding of the relationship between political institutions and social beliefs: specifically, the importance of the social aggregation institutions that allow democracies to understand themselves.
There are some low-hanging fruit. Very often, hardening these institutions against attacks on their confidence will go hand in hand with hardening them against attacks more generally. Thus, for example, reforms to voting that require permanent paper ballots and random auditing would not only better secure voting against manipulation, but would have moderately beneficial consequences for public beliefs too.

There are likely broadly similar solutions for public commenting systems. Here, the informational trade-offs are less profound than for voting, since there is no need to balance the requirement for anonymity (so that no-one can tell who voted for who ex post) against other requirements (to ensure that no-one votes twice or more, no votes are changed and so on). Instead, the balance to be struck is between general ease of access and security, making it easier e.g. to leverage secondary sources to validate identity.

Both the robustness of and public confidence in the US census and the other statistical systems that guide the allocation of resources could be improved by insulating them better from political control. For example, a similar system could be used to appoint the director of the census to that for the US Comptroller-General, requiring bipartisan agreement for appointment, and making it hard to exert post-appointment pressure on the official.

Our arguments also illustrate how some well-intentioned efforts to combat social influence operations may have perverse consequences for general social beliefs. The perception of security is at least as important as the reality of security, and any defenses against information attacks need to address both.

However, we need far better developed intellectual tools if we are to properly understand the tradeoffs, instead of proposing clearly beneficial policies, and avoiding straightforward mistakes. Forging such tools will require computer security specialists to start thinking systematically about public beliefs as an integral part of the systems that they seek to defend. It will mean that more military oriented cybersecurity specialists need to think deeply about the functioning of democracy and the capacity of internal as well as external actors to disrupt it, rather than reaching for their standard toolkit of state-level deterrence tools. Finally, specialists in the workings of democracy have to learn how to think about democracy and its trade-offs in specifically informational terms.

Henry Farrell is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. 

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist and author of 13 books on cryptography and general security topics.

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