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Protecting India’s democratic fabric: The intersection of cybersecurity and AI in elections

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By Sudip Banerjee, CTO, Asia Pacific & Japan, Zscaler

The world’s eyes are set on India as the nation goes to polls in 2024. With an electorate surpassing the entire population of Europe, India’s democratic process is not just a national event but a global spectacle. However, the world’s largest democracy finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with a challenge that strikes at the core of its democratic principles -misinformation. With over 830 million active internet users, India is a battleground where the war for truth is being fought with keystrokes and clicks.

The 2019 elections were labeled the social media elections indicating a significant shift in how political discourse unfolds. Yet, as 2024 approaches, a new and formidable foe looms large – Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The rise of deepfakes
The rise of AI has not only amplified the quantity but also elevated the caliber of deepfake audio and video production. This powerful technology has become a weapon in the hands of those manipulating reality, making it India’s most critical risk in the upcoming years, as stated by the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2024. This presents a pressing concern, particularly when it comes to the susceptibility of the average Indian voter to electoral misinformation. The growing disparity between genuine and AI-generated content exposes voters to deceit and potential disenfranchisement. Recent incidents, like the circulation of deepfake videos featuring renowned actors Ranveer Singh and Aamir Khan endorsing specific political parties, underscore the gravity of this issue.

Although identifying manipulated video deepfakes might be relatively easier in the short run, the emergence of audio deepfakes poses a more concerning challenge. Additionally, while deepfakes have mainly targeted public figures thus far, there is an unsettling potential for them to target election workers in fiercely contested districts, making them harder to promptly dismiss. Furthermore, the proliferation of counterfeit websites amplifies the impact of deepfakes, allowing disinformation to spread at an alarming pace. These deceptive websites can be employed to bolster false assertions, adding another layer of complexity to the issue at hand.

The looming Threat of Hacking
Cyberattacks also remain a possibility, and politicians, their families, staffers, and party officials have likely been targeted on an ongoing basis over the last few years. The absence of reporting on stolen information from personal and work devices does not mean it has not happened; attackers may wait for the most opportune moment in the election cycle to leak any information. Attacks against devices that have gone undetected for months or years could still result in damaging leaks.

According to a 2024 analysis published in PNAS Nexus, today’s large language models (AI) are enhancing bots with unprecedented features and efficiency, endowing them with a deceptive human-like persona. This evolution makes it easier to disseminate manipulated messages and prolong their survival online, further complicating the landscape of digital disinformation. However, timely detection and mitigation remain significant hurdles due to the absence of technology capable of automatically discerning between original and AI-generated content. Social media platforms also struggle to contain the spread of fake news and propaganda.

Measures to safeguard actions
In response to these challenges, the Indian government has taken proactive measures to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. To address these concerns, the Election Commission of India has launched the "Myth vs Reality" project, leveraging the Information Technology (IT) Act to combat unlawful content. This initiative is complemented by the implementation of a standard operating procedure for quick responses against fake news. Additionally, under Sections 69[A] and 79(3)(b) of the IT Act, state authorities are empowered to request the takedown of problematic social media posts. In the face of rampant misinformation, the mantra of ‘Verify Before You Amplify’ has become crucial. Relying on authoritative sources ensures that accurate information prevails, safeguarding the democratic fabric of our nation.

A microcosm of cybersecurity and AI issues
The challenges of election security mirror those of cybersecurity and AI in all sectors: the sheer number of threats is rapidly increasing, and attackers are often ahead, exploiting technology faster than defenders can keep up. This dynamic further extends to businesses, financial markets, and critical infrastructure worldwide. Security professionals globally must remain vigilant, understanding how attackers could adapt election-related incidents to target other sectors. This awareness is crucial for safeguarding businesses and infrastructure against emerging threats. It’s crucial to adopt a Zero Trust model, which means no entity is trusted by default, requiring verification for all. This approach is essential for combating deepfakes.
Cybersecurity leaders must also prioritize validating the content that circulates within and outside their enterprises, closely monitoring the online landscape for any fluctuations. As India navigates the intersection of cybersecurity and AI in elections, collaboration between government agencies, tech companies, and civil society becomes imperative. By fostering a culture of digital literacy and resilience, we can fortify our democracy against the perils of misinformation and uphold the sanctity of free and fair elections.

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