Statement by H.E. Ernest Bai Koroma at the High – Level Meeting on Mitigating Disruptive Applications of Information, Communication and Technology on the Electoral process in Africa at the Olusegun Obasanjo Library in Abeokuta, Nigeria, 18-19th December, 2018.
Mr. Chairman, our esteemed host – His Excellency President Olusegun Obasanjo and his staff – Excellences, distinguished representatives of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me at the outset commend President Obasanjo for convening this High – Level Meeting on such an important contemporary subject.
The use of ICTs in elections, their inherent impact on the integrity of elections results, and by extension, on the peace and stability of our societies, is a subject that should continue to exercise our minds. Standing at the threshold of elections here in Nigeria, one of Africa’s major and burgeoning democracies, this discussion couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Elections the world over are beleaguered with accusations of fraud and illegitimacy, threatening peace, security and democracy itself. The general consensus has been that no one except election officials knows what happens to your vote once you cast it. It’s therefore not surprising that voter apathy is increasing in many parts of the world, owing to the perception or the reality that their votes don’t count.
In this context, the advent of the ‘Information Superhighway’ was widely seen as a panacea to the monster of electoral manipulations and the disputes that characterised them. The promise was that, using technology, we will be able to make elections transparent, without compromising voter privacy, and have a way to ascertain that the elections results are accurate.
Without doubt, when appropriate and safe technology is introduced especially to large platforms, with millions of participants, there is an increased financial burden placed on early adopters. But eventually, technology could drastically reduce the costs of our elections and free up taxpayer money to be spent on improving the quality of our education or health care systems or rebuilding our infrastructure.
Secure technology could also significantly increase voter turnout, with a whole new wave of voters feeling encouraged to conveniently cast their votes online from anywhere in the world.
True to this new reality of the ‘Information Age’, most electoral management bodies (EMBs) in Africa, as around the world, have taken on board several technological initiatives ranging from the use of basic office automation tools such as word processing and spreadsheets; to more sophisticated data processing tools: including database management systems, biometrics voter registration and identification, optical scanning, block chain and geographic information systems.
In Sierra Leone for instance, the adoption of technology has gone a long way to improve the elections management process thereby drastically reducing the ugly and incendiary incidents of electoral malpractices of ballot stuffing, result sheet mutilation, over voting, alteration of result sheets, hijacking of ballot boxes. In other places, the development of e-collation support platform has also significantly reduced the incidence of result manipulation at collation centres.
In other words, in ideal situations, a new elections management system based on technology could cut costs, increase voter turnout, make voting more convenient and accessible, ensure elections are honest, and reassure voters that their voices were heard.
Sadly, we are discovering that certain types of technology can be extremely vulnerable to hackers or manipulators, with the potential to unfairly influence the outcome of elections – it is like when you find the answer to a question; they change the question. ICT specialists agree that the crudest tool for election interference is to undermine data integrity; by ensuring that some people are unable to vote; or if they did vote at all, their votes don’t count; or by simply knocking off the internet the websites of elections commissions or opponents.
They could also inundate the sites with junk traffic and keep them offline or sluggish at critical moments during the elections; or essentially bombard them with malware to infect computers – essentially overwhelming the servers that host the sites.
There is also the very dangerous practice of ‘Spoofing Results’. We are told that in 2014, a hacker operation compromised the website of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, changed the election results; and then set to declare the winner of their choice. It is reported that the Commission officials spotted the attack less than an hour before the faked results were to be released, and prevented the fraudulent version from being made public. Imagine the impact that would have had on the stability of that country if the faked results were to have been made public.
Then, there is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ referred to as ‘Targeted Leaks’. We are told that intelligence agencies and the cybersecurity community are almost unanimous that hackers stole and leaked Democratic targets in the 2016 US elections and most effectively, shared with WikiLeaks, which then strategically release them out during key weeks of the campaign.Without doubt, the disruptive impact of these rogue applications represents a far more sophisticated attempt to influence democratic processes and the techniques vary from place to place. Here in Africa – where the shift from military coups to the use of technology to effect regime change is gaining momentum- allegations of supply of pre-programmed or substandard equipment have been rife. This poses a serious challenge to the great progress we have made in the continent regarding elections management.
I listened to President Goodluck Jonathan last month, at his book launch in Abuja, recounting his ordeal of how his voting was disrupted by technology in the last elections here in Nigeria. Many of my compatriots back in Sierra Leone also reported similar disruptions during our March 2018 elections right from the verification to the polling day; either by having someone else’s photograph against their details on their voter card, or their photographs against someone else’s details, or their names not showing up in the centres they registered and where they were required to vote. These disruptions may appear as ‘minor’ technical hitches but they could undermine confidence to the extent that, at some point in our case, both the public and leaders demanded a recount of the results.
Either way, the new trend clearly shows that hackers or vested interests have perfected their trade from mere information and propaganda attacks to techniques designed to more directly manipulate electoral processes and outcomes. The danger is that, if this awkward trend is not mitigated, voters will become frustrated and lose confidence in our democratic systems. It is therefore no longer acceptable to say that the people are able to participate in elections while their votes decide nothing- yet those with vested interest decide everything using rogue ICT applications.
So how do we mitigate these disruptive applications? There are several measures being employed to curb the malaise one of which is what is now being referred to as ‘disrupting the disruptive: i,e: “blocking and filtering”. But Mr. Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me attempt to start from the beginning by emphasizing that technology is just a tool; not an end in itself. For example, if technology is being considered for vote counting, the guiding principles that apply to vote counting should also apply to the technology.
Procurement and deployment of electoral technology must also be timely, transparent and inclusive to ensure a buy –in from all stakeholders. It is therefore advisable to organize a consultation process with the users or their representatives to ensure that their needs are met and that they are satisfied that the new system is acceptable and reliable.
Demonstrable security levels are one way of ensuring that election IT systems are transparent and trustworthy. It therefore follows that computer systems used for elections include high levels of security. Unauthorised persons must be prevented from accessing, altering or downloading sensitive electoral data.
Coming back to the concept of disrupting the disruptive through blocking and filtering – this is basically a range of technical measures to partially or totally restrict the flow of data on the internet. Critics of this technique may argue that it interferes with the freedom to seek, receive, and impart ideas and information and so a form of control. But the literature on blocking and filtering practices around the world sheds light on both their shared features and distinctive elements; as well as highlight the different contexts in which they occur. For instance, it is recorded that some countries implement ‘judicial orders’ demanding that “intermediaries such as local internet access providers and app stores administrators “block” user access to certain social media applications, because the applications allegedly either provide an illegal service or failed to comply with a court order”. In Brazil, this practice is regarded as “regulatory disruption”. Worthy of note however is the established fact that this scenario is not entirely exclusive to Brazil.
The literature indicates that in many countries, “blocking access to internet applications, services, and content is part of state policies to mitigate ‘disruptive’ applications of information, communication and technology: they are temporary and are usually implemented for national security reasons in regions and periods of rising political tensions and during “emergency situations”, or in child and copyrighted protection”.
In Germany, for instance, we are told that “the penal code prohibits the use and dissemination of Nazi and Holocaust denial materials, implicating a responsibility to eradicate this content from the web.
In France, internet connection providers, following notification, must block websites that contain materials that incite terrorism. In the United States, the practice of “domain seizure” is used as a method to impede access to websites that disseminate content in violation of copyright law and that provide illegal services, such as sales of drugs and smuggled goods. In the same country, internet service providers receive thousands of take-down notices daily under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Across Europe, search engines must consider requests for search results to be de-indexed following the recognition of the so-called “right to be forgotten” after the 2014 ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union”.
What is good for the goose, they say, is also good for the gander. If such blocking and filtering practices are good for those reasons; they should also be good for the purpose of protecting the integrity of elections and their outcome.
Not surprising, in our backyard in Africa, there are instances of internet shutdowns or throttling of internet applications have been reportedly implemented during elections, to ‘frustrate online and offline political movements’ as was in Ugandan during the February 2016 presidential elections. Other examples, within the past two years include shutdowns in Chad, the Congo, Gambia, Gabon.
Overall, EMBs should overcome the challenge of delay in the final collation of results by fully implementing the use of electronic collation within the necessary time and legal frameworks to ensure early and comprehensive release of results. This will minimise the risk of hacking into the system and tempering with the results.Given the reality of death and migration, electronic electoral registers ought to be updated, and verification and corrections carried out as early as possible. This will also help in issues of uncollected voters’ cards, inaccurate, as well as multiple registrations.In addition, enough time should be allocated to ICT-based activities e.g.: voter verification; issuance of voter cards and printing of registers done on the eleventh hour are prone to avoidable mistakes which might generate unnecessary tension and problems.
The human factor is also very critical; no matter the cutting-edge technology deployed, if the personnel and other EMB actors are unprofessionally and ethically croaked, the outcome will always be suspect. ICT staff of National Elections Commissions should be exposed to certification courses, better conditions of service, and when they are found to collude in manipulating outcomes; the sanctions should be effective deterrents. Training both at home and oversea will reduce the cost of outsourcing ICT-related tasks to consultants. It will also minimize security risks relating to foreign interference. This is where home grown African financial support to elections bodies becomes imperative. Open initiatives supported by OSIWA should not be limited to the openness and accountability of governments; but as a matter of fact, they should be extended to the openness and accountability of the processes that elect such governments.
I thank you for your attention.