While 2015 saw record breaking data breaches of major corporations and government agencies, 2016 has shown us that attention paid to these more high profile and dramatic attacks may have come at the expense of more insidious shifts that were already underway in cyberspace.
Long have we feared cyber-attacks against our power grid and water supply, but the use of cyber espionage and influence by the Russian military to meddle in our election underscores the threat that this type of information operations poses to our open and interconnected society. To ignore this threat would put at the peril not just the next administration’s legitimacy, but the United States’ leadership for democratic values worldwide.
Four years ago, the threat of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” dominated discussions of our digital vulnerability with then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that, “An aggressor nation or extremist group could … contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.”
Those responsible for securing of our critical infrastructure know Panetta’s warnings still stand true today. However, taken alongside a continuous and aggressive global espionage campaign, Russian cyber operations against the DNC and supporting the spread of “fake news” to attempt to influence the U.S. election have laid bare one unexpected reality of how cyber operations will be leveraged against vulnerabilities in open societies’ democratic processes.
While there are many factors that led to the outcome of the latest U.S. election, the intent of Russian actions and their perceived success have proved to be an impressive asymmetric weapon: low-cost for the perpetrator but high-impact for the victim. Former CIA Director Michael Morell has even labeled it, “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
While espionage and foreign influence campaigns are nothing new, the vulnerability of our own media and interconnected online society to serve as a foreign power’s strategic amplifier is certainly a wakeup call for all those who value a free and open political debate.
Indeed, this debate over legitimate policy issues facing our country often took a back seat to more sensational stories online in 2016, with the proliferation of “fake news” going viral on social media. A recent study by the MIT Media Lab found that on Twitter, Trump supporters established a more insular group with fewer connections to the mainstream news outlets. This phenomenon can cause an “echo chamber” effect, which increases the effectiveness that information operations can have. It also unfortunately furthers the hyper-partisanship in modern American politics that has become more and more difficult to unravel.
The other factor beyond “fake news” was the continual drip of correspondence from leaked e-mails among the Democratic Party. Misinformation certainly played a role in creating the chasm between today’s parties, but the stories that Democrats found most challenging to shake laid bare grievances with each other. Though ill-gotten, the leaks furthered a political narrative that was damaging to the Democratic party.
While both political parties appear to have suffered similar intrusions, evidence backed up by the U.S. intelligence community shows that the decision to leak Democratic Party information was specifically directed in order to influence the course of our electoral process. Regardless of which side in the election was hit, or the number of votes that it swayed, we as a nation cannot stand for this type of direct assault on the legitimacy of our political system. In short, this is a very “Big Deal”.
Attribution in cyberspace is often challenging, but not in this case. With the U.S. intelligence community united in their assessment, President Obama has taken strong first steps by responding publicly to Russia’s actions, but more must be done. Information operations demand a more finessed approach than open warfare. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The truth is often far more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.” Exposing how Russian citizens’ economic woes are directly attributable to Putin and his inner circle, who profit from systemic national corruption while the rest suffer, would be a strong next step.
We must also not allow international pressure to shift its focus off of the Putin regime’s irresponsible actions in Ukraine, disastrous interference in Syria, or support for candidates in Europe that foment nationalistic emotions at the expense of civil society.
It is still early in the history of the internet — cyber warfare may indeed come to Secretary Panetta’s vision. But we have now seen what information warfare looks like in the modern age, and the chaos that it can wreak on an open society. The incoming administration must focus its own actions and institutions by denouncing and deterring future aggression against our democratic processes, regardless of which party they are targeting, and defending our core American values of liberty, pluralism, and self-determination online and “in-real-life.”
Davis Hake is an entrepreneur and Adjunct Fellow at CSIS. Previously he served as a Director for Cybersecurity on the National Security Staff and led cybersecurity strategy efforts at Palo Alto Networks. He is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.