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NATO told Russian election meddling evolving threat that must be met


HALIFAX — A NATO draft report says the problem of Russian meddling in democratic elections continues to evolve and alliance members must be ready to meet the threat.

U.S. Democratic congresswoman Susan Davis told a NATO science and technology committee meeting in Halifax Sunday that Russian cyber interference comes largely in the form of disinformation that has specific goals in mind.

"Disinformation campaigns spread false information about our institutions and about our politics and they seek to diminish public faith in liberal democratic institutions and undermine the very fabric of our societies," said Davis.

She said Russian interference was detected in the early stages of the recent mid-term elections in her country, although not on the scale seen during the 2016 presidential election.

Davis said technology companies shut down hundreds of fake accounts that aimed to disrupt the elections.

"I want to emphasize that the accounts identified and deleted were not only Russian, but also Iranian. And moreover, the U.S. government now also believes that other states are emulating Russia's tactics including China."

In a report updated since first presented at a meeting in Warsaw last May, Davis urges NATO member governments and parliaments to adopt measures such as regular risk assessments of election infrastructure and to consider mandating post-election security audits among other initiatives. She said allied countries should strive to establish "common best practices."

Discussions during the weekend parliamentary assembly meeting have also focused on other measures including the application of sanctions and the use of NATO Article 4, said Davis. Seldom used, a member state under Article 4 can convene a meeting of the alliance to "consult" when it feels its independence or security are threatened.

Davis said last year's election in the Netherlands can serve as a "great example" of what successful adaptation can achieve.

"The Netherlands were able to secure public trust in their last elections by actively working to make them secure," she said. "Our Dutch friends held elections without significant disruption and I think their thorough preparation is really a key factor."

Davis noted that prior to the election the Dutch government reached out to the U.S. government in an attempt to learn lessons from the 2016 elections in the United States. She said it also moved to ban the electronic counting of ballots and put in place a fact-checking function for newspapers that citizens could refer to.

"We have to conduct regular risk assessments of election infrastructure to remain abreast of the emerging vulnerabilities and develop strategies to secure them and recognize that our adversaries are always changing their tools as well," said Davis.

She added that governments can't just act alone and will also have to partner with the commercial technology sector to secure elections. Davis advocated for better information sharing between government and non-government sectors on cyber and hybrid threats.

"The reality is there is no substitute for that. That is something critical as we move forward."

Giorgi Kandelaki, of the associate Georgian delegation, told the committee that he was the victim of a Russian inspired disinformation campaign that popped up on Facebook news feeds.

A member of a Georgian opposition party, Kandelaki said a news link quoted him as allegedly saying the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church should be "dragged out of his residence and put on trial" — a statement he said is equal to "political suicide" in his country.

"I allegedly say this in an interview to a German magazine Volt, which doesn't exist," said Kandelaki.

He said he was later told by a Facebook official that his experience with fake news did not violate Facebook community standards.

"Which really illustrates that still the Russians are a step ahead of us and we largely still fight this phenomenon with conferences and seminars and Russians act," Kandelaki said.

Committee chairwoman Maria Martens of the Netherlands said the very problem outlined by Kandeleki was brought to the attention of officials from Facebook and Google during a recent committee trip to California.

"Facebook had the same reaction actually," said Martens. "We left with a very uncomfortable feeling."

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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