Politics, Election Times and Cell Phone Spying

elections cybersecurity

Political espionage has been in existence for several decades now. However, technological innovations and advancements, widespread use of communication devices like cellphones, and the social media reign have seen new propaganda campaign methods emerge. The modern political espionage scenario is plagued with fake news reporting, cyberattack incidents, manipulative ads, and digital content that is hard to verify if it is authentic. 

Research done by Oxford Internet Institute found that computational propaganda has increased massively and has become prevalent in nearly half the countries. Political manipulation impacts came to the limelight following the US 2016 presidential elections, where investigators uncovered evidence of external parties meddling in the elections. Russian automated bots reportedly used social media platforms to trigger disagreements and division in different controversial topics.

While political espionage has become widespread, it is capable of disrupting an election. More often than not, mobile espionage is the primary method used to conduct political manipulation, blackmail, and electoral interference. In response, most countries prioritize identifying and preventing threats that may impact election integrity through interference but obviously forget to consider the mobile security of various political candidates, their staff, political consultants, and journalists. 

As a result of the recent happenings, our post points to three trends indicating that mobile or smartphone espionage is the next main frontier of electoral sabotage and interference. Continue reading to learn more about the trends, mobile phone electoral hacking incentives, and standard surveillance tools that criminals use to conduct political espionage. You will also discover ways to mitigate such risks. 

Mobile/Smartphone Hacking is the Next Main Frontier of Electoral Interference

  • The Growing Importance of Smartphones

Currently, smartphones can perform similar tasks to a computer. Individuals and organizations use mobile devices for video calls, email communication, Internet browsing, and sharing sensitive information. Due to their mobility and effectiveness, the devices are often used in running daily businesses of political contests and campaigns. They are almost indispensable, making them a valuable target for rouge political opponents.

  • Increased Use of Surveillance Tools

There have been several incidents where government or powerful business communities collaborate with a mobile phone company’s employees to spy on and target political opponents. Also, intrusive mobile surveillance tools are affordable and readily available to political bigwigs who know where to look. As these tools become more prevalent, ill-intended politicians and political parties will continue using them to suppress dissent.  

  • State-Sponsored Electoral Interference

Malicious external parties often have a high appetite for using any means to interfere with elections. For example, the 2016 US elections were marred with claims of Russian operatives hacking and releasing past email communications to wreck the political image of an aspirant in favor of another. 

Politicians can apply similar tactics and hire hackers to infiltrate mobile phones of other political opponents to ‘find dirt,’ such as incriminating communications, pictures, or videos and use them for blackmail or extortion.

That said, it is pertinent to look at the primary reasons why mobile phones are becoming the main electoral hacking target. Also, understanding the possible political consequences of such change is essential to informing the security measures politicians and political parties should take regarding their smartphones’ security.

The Incentive of Smartphone Electoral Hacking 

The main reason why some politicians sponsor hackers to target their opponents’ smartphones is to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information. Political opponents, journalists, and campaign staff use mobile phones as the central points for communications during intensive political campaigns. As such, the devices often house a lot of valuable information and access, including but not limited to:

  • Communication Channels: Mobile phones enable candidates to communicate with their supporters, financiers, and other stakeholders through various communication channels. These include emails, text messages, social media accounts like WhatsApp, among others. Rival politicians controlling access to such channels through hacks and intrusions can monitor all communications while waiting to find something they can use to suppress their opponents. 
  • Storage Information: Like anyone else, individuals with political aspirations store various data types on their smartphones. These include recordings of past political or business meetings, personal videos or images, campaign strategies, or key talking points in planned rallies or debates. Most of the information may be harmless, but it can be modified to meet the malicious objectives of rival political opponents.
  • Live Images and Audio: Communications in the form of live images or audio stored in a politician’s mobile phone device can reveal more details of their private life. Hackers can target the information to obtain personal information, such as private moments with family or friends or professional work life. Opponents with access to such information are more likely to find something to use as a political weapon.
  • Unauthorized Access to Online Services: Many candidates use their smartphones to access online services for storing sensitive information or interacting with other stakeholders. For example, a smartphone can be used to launch and access cloud services used to house personal vetting documents, strategy memos, internal polling information, and first-draft political policies. 

Common Surveillance Tools Used in Conducting Political Espionage

Surveillance tools usage is not a new phenomenon since governments and political rivals alike deploy them to discredit their opponents. However, what has changed is the ability to turn a mobile phone device into a spying device to surveil every candidate’s move and communication. 

The two popular surveillance tools used are IMSI catchers and advanced spyware.

  • IMSI Catchers 

IMSI catchers are devices or communication infrastructure that simulates the signals of a cellphone base station. Malicious operators use them to intercept the cellular data of a specific smartphone, including unencrypted text messages and phone calls. Additionally, IMSI catchers can enable malicious politicians to spoof the identity of their opponents, enabling them to access and participate in sensitive conversations. 

  • Advanced Spyware 

Highly sophisticated malware, such as Pegasus, enables attackers to execute zero-day vulnerabilities present ins smartphones. Political rivals can sponsor hackers to execute an advanced spyware attack exploiting undetected vulnerabilities. This tactic enables them to track phone calls, text messages, activate mobile phone device microphones and cameras at will, track locations, and read text messages. 

These and other similar tools are created for official use. However, inadequate oversight implies that the tools can easily be used for illegal activities due to their ready availability and affordability. Also, blurred lines between intentional political surveillance and official government operations, as well as a fragmented global marketplace, make the tools to be within reach. An incident in 2016 saw three senior politicians belonging to National Action Party in Mexico become victims of a Pegasus malware attack, believed to be associated with the federal government.

What is the Endgame?

Politically-aligned threat actors can capture smartphone access to force a change in policy or positions, create chaos, or make a specific candidate lose. Other outcomes are:

  • Gain a Competitive Advantage: Political opponents can use stolen data, such as debate preparation notes, to gain a competitive advantage.
  • Leak Dirt: Embarrassing information can be leaked to turn supporters against a candidate.
  • Blackmail: Some opponents may opt to use embarrassing information to blackmail their rivals into submission or force them to support unfavorable policies.
  • Communications Sabotage: Politicians can use hackers to take over their opponents’ communication channels to sabotage their political campaigns or spread disinformation

Take Back Control of Your Mobile Device Today  

As the saying goes, politics is indeed a dirty game. 

Political aspirants need to protect themselves from smartphone hacks or intrusions that may derail their ambitions. Fortunately, users can take control of their mobile phone tasks by using Kaymera’s solutions. 

Kaymera’s fully encrypted smartphone solution guarantees 100% security when individuals use their mobile phones to access or share essential data. 

We provide high-end smartphone devices running on a custom operating system built on the best cybersecurity premises, such as application security, on-device security management, real-time threat detection and response, real-time risk monitoring, personal security, and advanced risk resolution. 

Our privacy-first approach revolves around preventing damaging attacks from harming an individual or organization through continuous monitoring and protection of voice calls, files, location, and messages. Kaymera’s advanced cybersecurity technologies provide our customers with a new concept regarding mobile phones’ identity and data protection.