Watching The Polls: How Spying Imperils Elections

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In the coming year, the elections to be held in Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Tunisia will be closely watched. Not only will the international community be monitoring the elections, but domestic governments could be monitoring their own citizens at the ballot box.

When courageous citizens brave uncertain political and societal contexts to exercise one of their fundamental human rights - the right to vote - they will rely on another fundamental human right - privacy. Privacy in political processes is one of the most important guarantors of democracy, enabling people to vote by secret ballot and thus be free from intimidation, corruption and recrimination.

Yet as States expand their surveillance capacity and seek to build their power to observe and monitor ideas, communications, and movements, the right to vote and engage in political processes is increasingly imperilled.

Today, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, presented a report on the importance of freedom of expression in electoral and political contexts. Although the report doesn’t have a significant focus on the implications of surveillance for free expression, coming as it does on the heels of Mr La Rue’s excellent 2013 report on the relationship between freedom of expression and privacy, this report provides an important provocation for discussions about the importance of privacy in the political process and the destructive impact of surveillance on the exercise of democratic rights.

Surveillance powers of states

Each of the six States mentioned above - and many, many more that are conducting elections in the coming year - possess mass and invasive surveillance capabilities:

  • Nigeria last year purchased advanced intelligence gathering and analysis technology from Israeli company Elbit Systems;
  • Turkey just passed a law requiring internet services retain for indefinite time periods and disclose to the government all communications data collected about internet users’ activities;
  • Extensive phone and internet monitoring infrastructure, purchased and implemented by the Tunisian government prior to the Arab Spring, remains in place in Tunisia; and
  • FinFisher command and control servers have been found in Mexico, Indonesia and Ethiopia, suggesting those governments are using the trojan technology to infect and monitor individual user devices.

Although the extent of surveillance being conducted in these countries is not known, given the vast capabilities pursued and possessed by these governments, there is a highly likelihood that communications are being monitored on a considerable scale. Moreover, as we have noted, these technologies are often wielded against pro-democracy activists and journalists, and elections are prime season for their deployment.

The latest report

What impact does the deployment - or even the spectre - of such surveillance capabilities have on the exercise of democratic electoral rights?

La Rue's report emphasises that there are three sets of actors that depend on upon free and open political communication during electoral processes:

  • the voters, who depend on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy to form and express their political affiliation without fear;
  • the candidates and political organisations, who exercise their rights through campaigning and communicating political messages freely; and
  • the media, which plays an important role in scrutinising political parties and platforms, and providing checks and balances on the electoral process.

The report notes the types of activities that infringe on these rights - the intimidation or harassment of journalists or candidates in the lead up to elections, for example, and the prohibition of specific forms of media content and the blocking of websites and blogs.

Mass and invasive surveillance by the state imperils all the necessary actors and their rights, including participating in free and open elections. If citizens are actually being watched, or live in a state of pervasive surveillance, how can they freely vote in elections? How can opposition parties and leaders challenge those in authority? How can the media report on what is happening, or expose election-related corruption?

Privacy, free expression, and elections

Just as La Rue demonstrated in his 2013 report, it is undeniable that surveillance facilitates such infringements on free expression rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that attacks on members of the press in India - the world’s largest democracy, which recently underwent the world’s largest elections - are fundamentally driven by the country’s $132 million Central Monitoring System.

Iran, which had previously witnessed the important role the internet can play in facilitating political change during the 2009 Green Revolution, has a extraordinary internet surveillance apparatus, and imprisoned 40 journalists in the lead up to its June 2013 elections.

The Egyptian government, following quickly on the heels of el-Sisi’s landslide election victory last month, has just published a tender for a social media monitoring system, designed to help the government eradicate “dangerous” behaviour on Facebook and other platforms like “calling for the departure of societal pillars and inviting demonstrations [and] sit-ins”.

The destructive effects of the surveillance State on innovation, creation, and progressive movements have been well documented. Surveillance impedes political change, entrenches the power of the dominant and solidifies the status quo. Free and fair elections can never truly occur in a State that controls, and watches over, the political ideas and thoughts of its populace.