Victoria: British Columbia should update its Election Act to include cyber protection measures before next year’s scheduled provincial election, says the chief electoral officer.
Anton Boegman submitted a report to the B.C. legislature Monday that recommended the changes to protect the electoral process from foreign interference, political impersonation and misleading advertising.
The report, “Digital Communications, Disinformation and Democracy,” says cyber threats have jeopardized the integrity of free and fair elections around the world.
Boegman said that while such threats haven’t been widely seen in B.C., the risks they represent to the electoral process are real in the era of digital campaigning. Cyber threats operate in spaces not contemplated by current legislation and can compromise provisions intended for a fair, transparent and accountable election process, he said.
“Researchers have found that malicious actors often use sub-national or small-state elections to test cyber attacks that they can then use in national contests,” Boegman said in an interview.
He cited the use of misleading reports in the 2019 Burnaby South federal byelection won by current New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh, including an online advertisement that said Singh lived in a home valued at $5.5 million when that wasn’t true.
The mansion in the ad was actually a Hollywood-area home.
“The report makes specific recommendations in the area of disinformation,” said Boegman, adding the proposed B.C. changes would mirror the federal Elections Modernization Act which was passed prior to the 2019 federal campaign.
“Ours is really looking at disinformation in the B.C. context by introducing restrictions on things like intentional impersonations or making false statements about political candidates, political parties or Elections BC,” said Boegman.
The report also recommends targeting attempts to spread misinformation about the electoral process surrounding dates, locations and eligibility of voters, he said
Disinformation campaigns and election interference have been well documented during the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the U.S. election in 2016.
Boegman said the report cites striking examples of disinformation attempts during international campaigns, including an incident during the 2016 American election where a tweet from a fake Russian account used the false image of a celebrity urging voters to cast ballots by text message.
A doctored image of American actor Aziz Ansari has him holding up a sign saying, “Save time. Avoid the line. Vote from home,” Boegman said.
“Of course, voters can’t actually vote by text message but some might have been influenced to do so and to not actually vote in person,” he said.
If adopted by members of the legislature, the recommendations would give Elections BC tools to regulate digital campaigning and mitigate the risks of the threats to electoral integrity, said Boegman.
“These recommendations will ensure our electoral legislation is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century,” Boegman said. “While many provisions in current legislation are equally effective regardless of whether campaigning is analog or digital, certain aspects should be changed to ensure our regulatory framework is effective in today’s digital environment.”
B.C.’s next election is scheduled for October 2021.
By Dirk Meissner
The Canadian Press