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Russia’s Neighbor Finland Mounts Defenses Against Election Meddling

Kati Pohjanpalo
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Russia’s Neighbor Finland Mounts Defenses Against Election Meddling

(Bloomberg) -- The country that shares a bigger border with Russia than the rest of the European Union combined is ramping up its defenses against the threat of foreign meddling in its April 14 election.

Finland has always had a love-hate relationship with its much bigger neighbor. A history of tension and bloody confrontations has given way to a strong trading partnership, and the country’s diplomatic role as a bridge between Russia and the West is one reason why its capital was picked for last year’s summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

But with evidence of Russian interference in Western politics mounting, the euro area’s northernmost member state remains on high alert. Social media influence campaigns or direct cyber attacks are already thought to have impacted key votes such as the U.S. election in 2016 and the U.K’s Brexit referendum.

“One shouldn’t be gullible,” Antti Hakkanen, justice minister in Finland’s caretaker government, said in an interview in Helsinki. “We’ll need to be prepared to ward off election interference if it becomes necessary. The risk is real.”

Hakkanen says Russia is eager “to incite mistrust toward authorities,” boost local “anti-EU forces” and “drive a wedge in European unity in all possible ways.”

In Finland, Russian trolls are suspected by cyber experts of looking favorably on the Finns Party, an anti-immigration, euro-skeptic movement that suffered a schism after appointing a hard-liner as leader. In a phone interview, Party Secretary Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo denied the allegations, saying the movement had not received any support from Russia.

Defenses Primed

A key takeaway from recent examples of electoral interference is that “we need tools that can be used swiftly,” Hakkanen said.

That means choking off a swelling tide of bots on social media before the accounts can be used to spread disinformation.

The government has offered training on how to spot and counter the spread of disinformation and hacking. Social media companies like Facebook Inc. are also teaching journalists how to protect their profiles and respond to online harassment. At a recent workshop, politicians were reminded about the importance of basic security measures such as two-factor authentication, creating strong passwords and keeping computer software up to date.

Finland hasn’t detected any large-scale suspicious activity geared to sway the vote so far, and its last national vote, the presidential election of 2018, went off without a hitch, according to the justice minister.

There are several factors working in Finland’s favor. A world-class education system has created a digitally savvy and highly literate population that’s critical of what it reads. The fact that few outside the country speak its language also helps.

Not everyone is reassured.

Troll Victim

Jessikka Aro, a journalist at state-owned broadcaster YLE, has been reporting on the Russian web trolls since 2014. That made her a target of a smear campaign that culminated in death threats and convictions for some of the perpetrators (she was also reportedly denied a U.S. prize because of her criticisms of Trump).

Aro says information warfare is much more subtle than simple electioneering, with cyber operations taking place over a long time frame. In Finland, decades of manipulation by Russia have stunted and suppressed security-policy debates, she said, pointing to findings by military researcher Saara Jantunen. Many local experts now decline to speak publicly on topics such as the country’s potential membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with inevitable repercussions on how people vote, she said.

The Finnish government is aware of the threats.

In 2017, it set up the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which now counts 20 member countries. It has also shelved plans to introduce e-voting after deciding that the system wasn’t safe enough.

“The threat has been discussed and understood,” said Jarno Limnell, professor of cyber security at Aalto University, and “this awareness makes possible interference less effective.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kati Pohjanpalo in Helsinki at kpohjanpalo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jonas Bergman at jbergman@bloomberg.net, Nick Rigillo

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