As scholars, civil society organizations, international institutions, and engaged citizens around the world contend with the effects of online propaganda, elections, and the public sphere, many eyes have turned to Ukraine. As the historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book, On Tyranny:
In the year before the [American] president was elected, American journalists were often mistaken about his campaign. As he surmounted barrier after barrier and accumulated victory after victory, our commentariat assured us that at the next stage he would be stopped by one fine American institution or another. There was, meanwhile, one group of observers who took a different position: Eastern Europeans and those who study Eastern Europe. To them, much of the president’s campaign was familiar, and the final outcome was no surprise. Ukrainian and Russian journalists who sniffed the air in the Midwest said more realistic things than American pollsters who had built careers on understanding the politics of their own country. To Ukrainians, Americans seemed comically slow to react to the obvious threats of cyberwar and fake news.
Ukraine has long dealt with Russian cyber operations, which the Oxford Internet Institute called “the most globally advanced case of computational propaganda,” and Russian influence in Ukrainian affairs has sparked political upheaval in recent years. The Euromaidan protests, in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s attempt to align Ukraine more closely with the Russian Federation than with the European Union, led to a 2014 revolution in which Yanukovych was ousted and a new government was appointed. In March 2014, Russian troops annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, and one month later, the War in the (eastern) Donbas region of Ukraine commenced. Having already claimed over 13,000 lives, the war is still ongoing.
Last year’s election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also captured international headlines as fact and fiction grew difficult to distinguish. Before running for president, Zelenskyy – an actor and comedian – played a teacher on ‘Servant of the People,’ a popular Ukrainian television show. In one clip that went viral, he criticizes the Ukrianian government’s endemic corruption and later is elected President in the show. He connected with Ukrainian voters’ disillusionment in both fiction and in reality, and Ukrainian voters elected him as their sixth president in April 2019.
To help understand how personal data was being used in Ukrainian’s 2019 elections, Tactical Tech partnered with Tetyana Bohdanova, an elections and civil society development specialist and a Fellow at the Prague Civil Society Centre who has an established history of working with NGOs across Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Bohdanova consulted a number of experts in the course of her research, including with Vita Volodovska, Ukraine’s Digital Security Lab Legal head; with Vadym Hudyma, a Digital Security Specialist at Ukraine’s Digital Security Lab; and with Robert Lorian, a Data Analyst at OPORA, a Ukrainian election monitoring group. While the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns and propaganda on Ukrainian politics have long been studied, other modes of technologically-mediated political influence have been overlooked in the fledgling democracy that declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. In fact, as Bohdanova notes in the introduction, “no investigations have been made into the use of personal voter data in elections and the issues arising at the intersection of privacy and digital campaigning” in Ukraine. The report, entitled “Personal Voter Data Use in 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections: A Report on Digital Influence Outside the Scope of Disinformation” explores how the five most successful political parties in Ukraine’s 2019 Parliamentary elections leveraged the personal data of Ukrainian voters. Bohdanova’s report includes examples of cybersecurity lapses, campaign finance ambiguities, and legal loopholes in the country’s data protection regime. The points below highlight a few themes from Bohdanova’s report, which can be read in full in English / in Ukrainian .
Before the 2019 elections, Facebook implemented changes intended to promote electoral transparency. While they were a step in the right direction, they also fell short.
Prompted by Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s campaign, Ukraine’s 2019 elections were the first to be particularly impacted by targeted political communications online.
Digital campaigning suffers from a number of legal loopholes in Ukrainian law, and those laws that do exist were not respected.
Although voter data in Ukraine is available from a variety of legal and semi-legal sources, political parties appear to be using data shared by their members, not data available from other sources.
Personal data was also accessible via these two bots operating on Telegram. The first bot linked users’ phone numbers and names and also had the ability to search for personal data connected to facial photos, email addresses, and license plates. The bot operated for free (in exchange with a contact from the user’s address book) or charged 50 USD for more data. The bot on the right contained even more sensitive information, claiming to sell “passport numbers, personal identification codes, declared places of residence, social media passwords, and even bank details.” The bot offered 10 records in exchange for the equivalent of 50 USD in Bitcoin. Its creators remain unidentified, and after a public outcry, it was removed, only to resurface under new names. An investigation revealed that the bot likely accessed data from social media, government registries, and commercial sources.
The exchange of data and digital products through different hands demonstrate how both have become valuable political assets that are shared selectively to help candidates gain an edge.
This screenshot above, taken from Facebook, shows the history of the page belonging to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won the race for presidency, and amassed 180,000 followers via this page. The red annotation displays the event when, after the election, his campaign’s page was merged with the Ukrainian government’s Presidential Administration page, calling into question the nature in which ownership of digital assets can undermine a healthy level of independence between the ruling party and the state apparatus. As a result, these 180,000 followers – who may have simply wanted to follow election developments more closely – automatically become followers of the government’s Facebook page.
In the same vein, a digital marketing expert in Ukraine posted the screenshot below, which is an email from Ukraine’s recently-established Ministry of Digital Transformation. He claims to have received the email from a single-use email address that subscribed to Zelenskyy’s election campaign. In other words, he started receiving messages from a state body having never consented to sharing his data with the government, only with the campaign. Cases like these blur the distinction between winning campaigns and the governments they staff, which is a critical distinction for functioning democracies. For voters, the considerations involved in sharing their personal data with a campaign may differ from their considerations in sharing data with the state.
Source: Personal Voter Data Use in the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections: A Report on Digital Influence Outside the Scope of Disinformation and https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10216817878814235&set=a.1082930708439&type=3&theater
In the conclusion, Bohdanova offers a number of recommendations for political parties, regulators, and civil society, including a call for enhanced transparency for online political campaign spending, concrete guidance on essential digital security guidelines to secure voter data, and clearer communication from political actors on how personal data is handled post-election. The full report can be accessed in English / in Ukrainian.