Democracy in the Crosshairs:
Cyber Interference, Dark Money and Foreign Influence

International law has long recognized that some infringements of another state’s sovereignty are sufficiently grave as to constitute a violation of international law, if not a casus belli. Recent cases of election interference, however, have more publicly exposed the uncertainty over the application of the general principle of non-intervention and whether attacks against democratic institutions would violate international law. Consider, for example, a cyber-attack from a foreign state that compromises the voting machines used during a democratic election. Contrast that cyber-attack with so-called “information warfare” that might involve the hacking of private correspondence and releasing it publicly via Wikileaks, or the use of social media and troll farms to spread disinformation and fake news. Add to this scenario large amounts of untraceable, illicit money transfers between an array of state and non-state actors intended to support these influence operations while making reliable legal or political attribution severely complicated. Do these infringements on the political process violate international law and if so, what should the necessary legal and political responses be?

There are a variety of legal considerations that must be addressed when answering these questions. Hacking and disclosure of private information might violate what many believe to be an international right to privacy, which is recognized by international human rights law (IHRL) but not upheld by U.S. courts. Also, the sovereign right to independence from any and all interference affirms that a nation has a right to conduct an election, without outside interference, in order to express its political will and create a representative government. Is it possible to determine, however, if and at what point acts of interference amount to a violation of sovereignty—or beyond that, an act of war? Finally, the laws of war arguably constrain some cyber-attacks, although only those that are sufficiently destructive to fall under that paradigm—cyber-based interference and disinformation campaigns do not cause physical damage, but they have sufficient power to destroy the legitimacy of an institution without the need for physical force. If acts of interference remain below the threshold of war, what mechanisms are available for objecting to clear violations of sovereignty as a result of foreign interference?

Even assuming that foreign interference in a democratic election is unlawful, there is then the added question of what actions a state might take in defense of its institutions. The traditional toolkit for international lawyers include retorsions and counter-measures. Are these the appropriate responses when a state is faced with information warfare? It may well be that foreign interference, like espionage and covert military operations, have become expected aspects of geopolitics requiring active counter-measures but which cannot be entirely prevented or deterred. Can the idea of an independent, insular election, confined to a single polity, be defended, or is it a relic of the past?

The conference will focus on these key themes:

  • The historical roots of foreign interference
  • Patterns of interference in domestic and foreign elections
  • The legal status of cyber-based foreign interference
  • Foreign Interference in the midterm elections
  • The role of dark money in U.S and European elections 
  • The future of information warfare: warfare as we know it? Or a weaponization of information and free speech and free press principles

Attendance at the non-keynote sessions of this conference is by invitation only.

There are two sessions open to the public.
Please see the “Keynote” page for more information.