Risk of foreign and cyber threats in next GE highlighted

Authorities advise parties to stay alert, find out more about precautions they can take

The authorities said reports of malicious cyber activities have been observed in elections elsewhere. PHOTO: REUTERS

Political parties have been issued advisories on foreign interference and cyber security risks ahead of the next general election (GE), where outcomes can be influenced by threats in both areas.

The authorities yesterday urged parties to stay vigilant, saying: "Political parties play an important role in safeguarding the integrity of our general election. They should enhance their understanding of the threat of foreign interference, and their cyber security posture."

The advice was given in a statement jointly issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore and the Elections Department.

Foreign interference refers to attempts by foreign countries, agencies or individuals to influence elections in another country.

Such attempts have been reported elsewhere, including in the United States presidential election in 2016 and midterm elections in 2018, as well as in elections in France and Germany in 2017, and in Italy in 2018.

The agencies added that reports of malicious cyber activities, such as disruptions and data theft, have been observed in elections elsewhere. These attacks "shook their electorates' confidence in their countries' election processes".

"As Singapore is a highly digitally connected nation, we need to also guard against opportunistic attempts to disrupt our election processes, to cast doubts on the integrity of our general election, and attack the credibility of our Government," they said.

They urged parties to find out more about precautions that can be taken to protect their IT infrastructure and online and social media accounts, as well as the storage and management of their data.

Parties should also monitor their platforms for suspicious activity and not share posts or tweets of suspicious provenance.

Meanwhile, individuals were encouraged to practise good cyber hygiene. This includes keeping their devices' software up to date, using strong passwords, backing up data regularly and being alert to phishing e-mails or unusual activity.

Parties or candidates who detect or suspect foreign interference in elections, or find out that their accounts or systems have been misused or compromised, should make police reports. They should also inform the Elections Department.

The statement is the latest in a series of election-related procedures to be announced.

The Registers of Electors were certified last Wednesday and are available for public inspection online. And Parliament will, when it next sits, debate a Bill on temporary arrangements needed to hold an election safely while Covid-19 measures are in effect.

Security expert Shashi Jayakumar said the advisory is very timely, given that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has seen the world "awash with fake news and disinformation". While some of this is born out of ignorance, there are also geopolitical aspects at play as countries seek to burnish their own record on fighting the disease and tarnish others', he said.

"We have to accept that from here on out, we are in an era where states can seek to undermine others through disinformation and subversion using social media and other means," added Dr Jayakumar, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Mr Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman, a research fellow from the same centre, added that although foreign interference can have near-term impact, such actors are usually playing the strategic long game.

"If wars in the past aimed to control a country by defeating its government and armed forces, foreign interference is a bloodless instrument that works over time to control a country by influencing its people," he said.

The ruling People's Action Party said in response to queries from The Straits Times that it will study the advisory and adopt any additional precautions recommended. Its branches have been advised to regularly assess their IT security policies and systems, and have been briefed on the precautionary measures against cyberthreats.

Mr Jose Raymond, who chairs the Singapore People's Party, said it is aware of the threat of foreign interference and is also taking steps to make sure it does not fall victim to cyber attacks. These include having an experienced legal team to take action against any offensive or defamatory material that might surface. The party has also asked the developer and administrator of its Web portals to draw up a comprehensive plan to secure its assets, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2020, with the headline Risk of foreign and cyber threats in next GE highlighted. Subscribe