As some of you may know, I was a member of the intelligence community for about 13 years. I’ve been in the commercial sector now for just about 2 years, and it’s been a welcome change for me overall. It’s just nice to get to come home and talk about your work. It’s also nice to be able to look over my proverbial shoulder a little less.
That said, I’ve been following the Russian interference in the 2016 elections and some of the assertions out there from journalists, cyber security experts, former intelligence community members and of course the U.S. government. In fact, I prepared a piece on this a few months ago after hearing some news commentary on the implications for the democracy and the electoral system. Then the Mueller report came out and pundits abound on various lines of thought. I would like to take a moment to reflect on the warfare piece and the implications for us in some broader senses.
First, I would like to discuss what I think is the most disappointing piece of the story, the messaging to the public.
On Yelling Fire
Yesterday you came home to find your front door open, your house flipped upside down. It’s not obvious yet what, if anything is missing, but now you probably have a few thoughts running through your head.
First, is it safe to be here? Is there an intruder still in my home? How many? Most people would probably make the wise decision to back away and call law enforcement – assuming they don’t have mixed feelings on law enforcement or perhaps other reasons they wouldn’t want law enforcement in their homes. Still, it would seem the logical option.
So the police have arrived, they are taking stock of the scene. There’s an all clear announced, but is it? Are you sleeping in your home tonight? Is your family? How well are you sleeping? Is there somewhere else to go tonight? Tomorrow night?
As you go through these various mental simulations, inevitably you will start looking to the past – did I miss something? Was there a hint this would happen to our home? Did anything seem amiss recently? And inevitably, you will start remembering things that might of been off; and maybe they were – but there’s no way to really tell.
Meanwhile there’s life to be lived. We need to have dinner tonight. The kids have homework to go over. There’s a work trip next week we can’t get out of. A loved one is ill.
So what will you do? Here’s a list of things you probably won’t do:
- Ignore it
- Say everything is ok
- Not fix the broken door
- Not think about moving
- Not talk to you family about it
- Not consider an alarm system
Or maybe you live in Lake Woebegone, things like that just don’t happen here – so they must not be happening, right? But it did.
A not funny story you may have heard of, back in 2016 the government of Russia took significant efforts to tamper with the US election – all the intelligence agencies agree this did happen. Yet many if not all officials will tell you, while this happened there is no reason to worry about the integrity of that election or the next; the Russian government did not directly change any vote. True they did sow some discord, but other than that, no big deal – right?
Don’t worry kids, someone broke into our house and it doesn’t appear they took anything, but there’s no reason to question the security of our home – it’s not like they… oh wait, they did break in and do whatever it was they did.
There’s a point when talking to any victim, be it an individual, group, or country that we must acknowledge systems have been disrupted – in this case faith in public institutions to protect the election (aka the one time many folks participate in government). It’s not just a technology problem, it’s not just a mass media problem, but it is a problem with democracy and we need to acknowledge that. In pretty much any therapy or problem solving scenario we start by identifying and accepting the problem in front of us. Telling rational citizens there is not a problem, that they should trust the system which just failed does not fix anything. If your airbag failed to deploy, would you drive that car?
TLDR: Everything is not ok, we don’t know how extensive the damage is because it is still being assessed. The public may never actually know.
PS: On security around the 2020 elections I recently heard a journalist state something to the effect “since the revelations on Russia’s 2016 election hacking efforts, campaigns are beefing up cybersecurity. While phishing worked in 2016, candidates and their staff won’t click any links next time.”
Oh really? No one? Right.
We need to increase our mental aperture
I’ve heard little of the “why?” behind the Russian election efforts. Every reason seems to be bound by time and ego. Each explanation is tied to a narrow window of time (the US election) and a narrow objective (to upset the election, sow discord in the US).
Information operations is not a new game. In psychology there is a term “theory of mind” which is an ability believed to set humans apart from most animals – being able to think about what others are thinking, and deciding how to behave based on those deductions. Information operations is essentially using theory of mind in an offensive capability, i.e. “Look a unicorn over there!” (steal cookie).
When nations conduct information operations it may be for short term wins, but many nations take the long-view to getting things done. According to what’s been made public, this was more than dumping pamphlets over enemy territory, this was a multi-pronged, phased effort conducted by a multitude of actors in a multitude of spaces. Why would Russia spend that much time and energy, not to mention potential tradecraft exposure, all over one candidate?
Now, I’m not a fan of global coordinated conspiracy theories. Things usually tend to fall apart in general once you involve chance, personal motivations, and entropy; however larger tectonic objectives can be influenced by psychological operations if done right. In other words, if the message is believable (or people want to believe), somewhat consistent, and aggressive enough, it can change perceptions which will drive or brake certain behaviors in the global arena.
Here’s where I think Russia was going.
Demonstrating the United States as fractured to the extent of being ineffective, not only to the world, but to its own people, damages the notion of American democracy and thought leadership in the world. Holes created by weakening the global assumption around America’s strength and viewpoint, established footholds for competing visions of the future world. The longer the United States is not in a position of strength, the more corrosive the effect.
Strategic objectives aside, here’s the really neat thing that happened (read: bad thing). By abusing the open communications of Twitter, Facebook, and the internet in general, Russia made a new argument for internet sovereignty by which the United States almost has to condone. If you’re not familiar with the concept it’s basically the opposite of the free and unimpeded exchange of ideas that we promote in the West. While I think most would agree there’s a problem with people shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, this has effectively turned the internet itself into the theater – for better or worse.