Cyber Panic

The current panic uses a definition of hacking that rates very low on the scale of cyberattacks, and blurs the line between actual security breaches and the dissemination of political propaganda.

If the hack is a “political 9/11,” should we retaliate by invading and destroying Russia?

Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin, 2012.

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a front-page article on the DNC hack. Despite the implications of its lurid headline (“The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.”), the article is, for the most part, a tale of American incompetence and negligence.1 It reveals that the DNC took a full seven months to respond to FBI warnings that its email system had been hacked, sometimes through rather obvious phishing attempts, and that DNC executives took nine months to schedule a formal meeting with senior FBI officials.

The scores of articles written about the hacking of the Democratic campaign emails have presented no conclusive evidence of the Russian government’s involvement; the public hasn’t been offered any. Instead, we’ve been asked to trust the “intelligence community”—despite its long track record of deception—along with that of cyberdefense consultants hired by the Democrats.2 If Russian government agents did hack into the DNC system, this is nothing unusual. For example, China hacked into the Obama and McCain computer systems to monitor their campaigns. And remember when Angela Merkel was furious over leaked documents indicating that the NSA was tapping her cell phone? Countries spy on each other. They also meddle in elections—often through much more invasive and violent means than by leaking real emails.

Unable to offer definitive evidence, the Times article, like so many others published this week, strove to hold the reader’s interest with hyperbolic figurative language: for instance, “While there’s no way to be certain of the ultimate impact of the hack, this much is clear: A low-cost, high-impact weapon that Russia had test-fired in elections from Ukraine to Europe was trained on the United States, with devastating effectiveness.” It was almost possible to forget that you were reading about phishing that had resulted in the publication of politically embarrassing emails; a disgruntled assistant could have accomplished comparable damage. (Stay tuned for stories on how Nigeria is trying to drop an atom bomb on America via all-caps requests for our bank account numbers.)

Like former CIA Director Michael Morrell’s ludicrous statement that the DNC hack was “the political equivalent of 9/11,” this kind of exaggeration underscores the fact that what really happened—hackers leaked office correspondence—was criminal, but neither violent nor particularly terrifying. Even if it can be proved that the email leaks were authorized by the Kremlin with the explicit intention of helping Trump win, the leaks can never be proven to have changed the outcome of the election. And if they did, it was by giving voters access to accurate, if privileged, information. There should certainly be a transparent investigation of the hack and the leaks. But the use of such overblown language—and the hysterical credulousness of so many politicians, journalists, and others—risks escalating a relatively minor incident into a conflict with real casualties. If the hack is a “political 9/11,” should we retaliate by invading and destroying Russia? Perhaps it would be preferable to start with two-step verification for politically sensitive Gmail accounts.

This is not to argue that cybersecurity isn’t a major concern. Cyberattacks on dams, for example, can be genuinely lethal, while attacks on financial systems can be enormously costly. But the current panic uses a definition of hacking that rates very low on the scale of cyberattacks, and blurs the line between actual security breaches and the dissemination of political propaganda. In an interview with Russian media expert Vasily Gatov, a Vox interviewer pled for confirmation of Russia’s decisive, strategic interference in the election.3 Gatov refused to comply, but the interviewer’s attempts to elicit the desired response were instructive: “To be clear, by ‘hack’ I don’t mean tampering with voting machines or rigging the process. I’m referring to the more insidious business of distorting discourse and influencing public opinion.” By this definition, “hack” encompasses the creation and distribution of invented news, as well as the theft and leak of real emails. But this confuses two distinct issues. Fake news is about invention, about promoting lies; email leaks are about giving wider access to truthful information, or at least to real documents that expose truths about our political system. You can oppose both, but the two should not be conflated. Propagandists are fundamentally different from whistleblowers, even if both act with political motives. And the US is about to give the President the right to appoint the chief executive responsible for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other government-sponsored international news outlets; this was the judicious response, under Obama, to the proliferation of Russian-sponsored political propaganda.

If we accept even the more limited definition of election “hacking” as “rigging the process,” we could say with great certainty that the US election was “hacked” by the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, or by America’s longstanding failure to eliminate antiquated voting technology, make Election Day a holiday, make voter registration automatic, or stop disenfranchising large swathes of the population through mass incarceration. These are well-documented, longstanding problems that are vastly more serious than an email leak. (A real conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign would be a major crime, of course, but would demand an indictment and a trial rather than moral panic.) America’s deeply flawed election process is a disgrace and should have been dealt with a long time ago, if fair elections were truly a priority in American politics. But no one seems to consider old-fashioned American voter suppression to be “hacking.” Maybe it’s too familiar.

As Trump makes his appointments, it has become clear (if it wasn’t already) that he will be the puppet of mega-corporations, particularly the fossil fuel industry, not Vladimir Putin. If Putin were a nice person, would it then be acceptable to have as secretary of state the former CEO of ExxonMobil, which operates as a de facto state, making its own deals with foreign leaders, regardless of their political persuasions, and hastening the destruction of the only ecosystem capable of sustaining human life? Rex Tillerson’s relationship with Putin is only a symptom of Tillerson’s fundamental unfitness for the position.

Democrats have an incentive to emphasize Russian meddling as an excuse for their disastrous defeat, which seems the result, in large part, of an incompetently run campaign. The obsession with foreign agents detracts from an effort to learn from the Democrats’ very real domestic mistakes and formulate a new political strategy. Meanwhile, many Republicans are welcoming this bipartisan opportunity to ramp up tensions with Russia; their warmongering demands constant vigilance.

In the most charitable reading of this belated frenzy, establishment Democrats and Republicans alike hope that accusations of Russian meddling will keep Trump out of the White House—an understandable wish, though it risks chaos. But perhaps there is something more at work here. Despite the success of Trump’s pseudo-populist rhetoric, both sides of the political establishment remain reluctant to speak about the biggest problem of all: America is poised to complete its transformation into an oligarchy that follows money and fossil fuels, no matter what the cost to the American public, to the environment, to the wider world. And it isn’t Putin’s fault.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/politics/russia-hack-election-dnc.html 

  2. The Intercept ran a useful article on the many unanswered questions about the evidence that has been made public so far. https://theintercept.com/2016/12/14/heres-the-public-evidence-russia-hacked-the-dnc-its-not-enough/  

  3. http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/12/5/13811848/putin-russia-fake-news-donald-trump-propaganda-media 

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