Taking further steps to support electoral integrity in Europe

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With the next European Parliament elections just around the corner, protecting vital democratic processes from nation state-led cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns is on everyone’s mind. Such attacks, which are increasing in frequency and intensity, erode public trust and can lead citizens to doubt the integrity of the electoral process. Election interference is nothing new, but the scale of the current threat is unprecedented – and this is partly down to advances in technology. As a major technology provider, we believe we have a role to play in supporting efforts to improve election integrity in Europe.

Political campaigns are particularly vulnerable to attack. Their proximity to large amounts of sensitive information makes them prime targets, yet they often lack sufficient security safeguards or resources to prevent intrusions. To address this issue specifically, we recently announced the expansion of our Microsoft AccountGuard cybersecurity service to twelve new EU markets. Today I am excited to share that we are further expanding access to an additional eight countries in Europe. The service is now also available in Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland.

Since its initial launch in the U.S. last summer, Microsoft AccountGuard has been rolled out to 26 countries, of which 22 are in Europe. Microsoft AccountGuard is a state-of-the-art cybersecurity service available at no extra cost to all political candidates, parties, and campaign offices using Office 365, as well as think tanks, non-profits, and nongovernmental organizations working on issues related to democracy and electoral integrity. The service provides unified detection and notification of cyber threats across accounts, guidance on how to secure networks and email systems, briefings on emerging threats, and early access to new security features. You can learn more here.

With key elections planned in several EU member states over the next year, we plan to continue our efforts to expand the offering across Europe. While we are trying to scale as quickly as possible, we also recognize that every country is different, and we need to tailor our services based on local needs and in compliance with local laws.

This latest announcement is just one element of our ongoing work under the Defending Democracy Program to help secure electoral processes and democratic institutions around the world. In Europe specifically, we have been engaging on several different fronts to play our part in protecting the upcoming elections with a focus on two areas – cybersecurity and disinformation defense.

Recognizing the unique cyber-enabled threats political candidates are facing today, our efforts in the cybersecurity space include providing technology solutions like AccountGuard to protect campaigns from hacking, as well as capacity building to ensure that individuals and groups likely to be targeted are equipped with the tools and knowledge to respond. We are providing free cybersecurity trainings for candidates, campaigns, political parties, thinktanks, and non-profits working in the election space in the run-up to the European elections. We have so far trained close to 1,000 people, including European political groups and networks as well as certain national political parties and government officials working on elections in Sweden, Finland, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Romania, and Belgium. Our trainings are offered on a non-partisan basis, are technology neutral, and are aligned with the principles laid out in the Harvard Kennedy School Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook: European Edition, which aims to help non-technical experts apply basic cyber-hygiene practices to their operations.

Disinformation campaigns are undermining democratic processes here in Europe and around the world. We are planning to join the EU Code of Practice on Online Disinformation to increase transparency around how we’re taking action on this issue and to collaborate more closely with other stakeholders on joint approaches to disinformation defense. In addition, we are focused on providing access to third party solutions that enhance digital media literacy and empower readers with information on the source and reliability of the content they consume and share. For instance, technology from journalist-led startup NewsGuard is available as a free opt-in browser extension on both Microsoft Edge and the Microsoft Edge mobile apps for iOS and Android. The NewsGuard service is available in the U.S. and the UK and is expected to launch in Germany, France and Italy ahead of the European elections in May. Moreover we are partnering with the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity to provide technical expertise, capacity building and funding.

Given the clear need for more independent academic research on disinformation and the interplay of algorithms, automation and politics, we are also focused on empowering the research community in Europe. As such, we are funding the Oxford Internet Institute’s work on Computational Propaganda; specifically through the creation of an “International Election Observatory” to monitor disinformation around the upcoming European Parliament elections. The project’s results will be published in late May.

We are entering the age of digital democracy, which presents both opportunities and risks. The stakes are high. One of Europe’s founding principles is the right of every citizen to make their voice heard and choose their own leaders. Protecting this principle from new threats will demand a concerted effort from policymakers, the private sector, and civil society alike. Working together, small steps from all actors can make a big difference in ensuring that age-old principles endure in our digital age.

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John Frank
Vice President for UN Affairs