“Highly likely” cross-government cell will be used to monitor interference and threats if election called

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez September 3, 2019
Summary:
Representatives from the Cabinet Office and DCMS gave evidence to a House of Lords Committee today on the impact of digital technology on democracy.

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Senior civil servants giving evidence to the House of Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology today gave insight into cross-Government work being carried out to monitor interference, disinformation and threats during elections - including the creation of an ‘election cell’ on the day of voting. 

Natalie Bodek, the acting deputy director of the elections division within the Cabinet Office, and Sarah Connolly, director of security and online harms at DCMS, both shared insights into how the government is collaborating across departments and agencies, as well as with social media giants, to monitor interference. 

Defending democracy from misinformation and digital interference has become a huge area of concern for governments across the world. Whilst no evidence has been found of online foreign interference in UK elections, it has been highlighted as a top priority by senior politicians and experts. 

Evidence on the topic has been collected by Parliamentary committees for some time now. A Commons Select Committee recently said that the “UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns”. 

Bodek told peers on the Lords Committee today that a cross-government Defend Democracy Programme is underway, which has been set up to protect and secure UK democratic processes, systems and institutions from interference. It is also operating to promote fact-based and open discourse, including online. 

Bodek also revealed that the programme has been operating ‘election cells’ - the first of which was set up for the 2017 General Election, and then again carried out during the recent European Elections. She said that it is highly likely that the tactic will again be used in any forthcoming election.

She explained: 

We have a Defend Democracy Programme that is bringing together the existing package of work across government. That’s led through two main coordinators - the Deputy National Security Advisor and the Director General for Governance and Domestic Affairs. They report up to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who does delegate to the Minister for the Constitution. So it’s led by the Cabinet Office, but it’s coordinated across quite a large number of departments - DCMS, the Home Office, Northern Ireland Office, Foreign Office, DfID, and the National Cyber Security Centre. So we are working across a large number of departments to bring together the existing activity. 

In terms of the operational delivery of elections, we stood up an election cell at the 2017 General Election and we stood up one again at the European Parliamentary Elections. The purpose of that is, again, to bring together the relevant expertise in government and also invite the Electoral Commission, and the Police, so we can bring together all of the perspectives about what is happening on the ground.

The Electoral Commission hugely valued that, as they could get a sense from us about whether there was a threat level, what that might be and what messages they might communicate.

Bodek said that the cell conducts monitoring and provides an “escalation point” to government for any potential issues. 

Working with social media giants 

DCMS’s Sarah Connolly, who is leading work on the government’s Online Harms White Paper, also provided detail on the work the government is doing, not only cross-department, but also with the social media giants. She explained: 

We are working with the big social media platforms, which are very well placed to identify what it is happening, where it is coordinated and whether it is authentic behaviour. And then identify and remove. 

It’s a fairly nascent piece of work, partly because the tech is fairly nascent. But we are working in a coordinated way across Whitehall. It is one of the more coordinated things I’ve seen in 15 years as a civil servant. There is a lot of coordination and there is a lot of active monitoring. But it is clear that this is not just about government work in this space. It is incredibly important that we have academics and experts and civil society and other voices in this space. 

The social media companies are good at this and they have no interest in having this coordinated behaviour on their platforms.