On April Fool’s Day, a group of hackers calling themselves Pinoy LulzSec attacked several local websites, including those of government agencies, as part of a three-day worldwide event called “April Lulz Day 2019.” This was the same group that leaked, in 2016, the Commission on Elections database containing over 70 million registered voter records.
This time, among those hacked was the database of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, compromising the data of about 20,000 soldiers, their serial numbers, units, positions and even the record of their injuries and missions.
The hacking, which the hackers said was done only “for fun,” once again highlights the vulnerability of the country’s internet infrastructure to cyberattacks and cyberespionage. Weak internet security is an open invitation for, among others, the manipulation of automated elections, a worrying scenario with the Philippines holding midterm polls in about a month’s time.
Note that the “Comeleak” incident happened six weeks before the 2016 national elections. The day before that leak, the hackers’ group Anonymous Philippines defaced the Comelec website and sent a warning to the agency to beef up the security features of its vote-counting machines.
Ahead of next month’s elections, the Comelec has given assurances that the precinct count optical scanner machines, which tech experts said are vulnerable to rigging, have been “enhanced” this time, and their “encryption strength” increased.
Still, the ease with which hackers are able to infiltrate Philippine websites continues to raise questions. The government has not been the only victim. In March, Qurium Media Foundation, a nonprofit digital solutions provider, investigated targeted cyberattacks against independent media organizations critical of the Duterte administration.
This was after the National Computer Emergence Response Team of Philippines, responsible for cybercrimes within the country, reportedly ignored requests to trace attacks made on Bulatlat, Pinoy Weekly and AlterMidya, among others.
Qurium discovered that the attacker, using the nickname “P4p3r,” entered a public Telegram channel and openly asked for help to do his job: “Anyone can help me to down these f***ing websites? I really need to down them.” The hacker was hiding behind “a sea of virtual private networks.” A telling detail: The network of tunnels “came and went from [the] Philippines, Hong Kong and China.”
The attacks have slowed down for now, Qurium said, but “they are likely to reappear soon again, since the general elections of the Philippines will be held on May 13th.”
The Philippines is not the only country dealing with cyberattacks as it prepares for major elections. In February, Indonesia’s election authority said Chinese and Russian hackers were attacking the country’s voter database ahead of its presidential election on April 17. It said the wave of cyberincursions happening “almost every hour” may be aimed at discrediting the election process.
Finland, which will hold its parliamentary election next Sunday, has ramped up its cyberdefense against foreign meddling, particularly from Russia, by offering training on how to counter hacking and spot trolls that spread disinformation online. Finnish authorities have also taken down bot accounts on social media.
In the United States, senators introduced legislation last week seeking to deter Russia from meddling in the country’s elections by threatening stiff sanctions on its banking, energy and defense industries and sovereign debt.
The specter of foreign hacking to disrupt elections and local affairs compounds the already toxic effects of pervasive online disinformation on public opinion.
Recently, Facebook took down 200 accounts, pages and groups linked to a network behind the social media campaign of President Duterte in the 2016 polls. The reason: “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” underlining the scale and extent of the shadowy, well-funded operations that have resulted in the noxious environment of falsehoods and fake news online designed to defend and prop up the Duterte administration.
Attacks from outside and inside: The May polls may well turn out to be a fresh battleground for the warfare happening across the globe that exploits a country’s ill-defended internet infrastructure and freewheeling social media to corrode public discourse, foment and heighten social divisions, influence government policies and even change the balance of power. How prepared is the Philippines for this threat?
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