• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Why Is This Night Different?

Putin, Trump and the Internet.


December 11, 2016

Information literacy and cyber insecurity are serious issues. If you didn’t know that already, there’s no evading the recognition now. They are serious because the effects on our domestic peace and national security are at risk. We await President Obama’s decision to declassify information about Russian involvement in cyberattacks on the U.S. Moreover, that influence is not simple recklessness. News reports confirm what many already suspected: Russia penetrated both the Republican and Democratic National Committees but only selectively offered documents to Assange to embarrass the Democrats. Bravo, President Obama, for asking intelligence agencies for a report on this matter. Furthermore, both U.K. and U.S. media suggest that fake news and cyberattacks are part of a pattern of character assassination soundly in Putin’s playbook. Such a nasty propensity combined with overt acts of physical violence and a will to engage in war is a dangerous mix. 

Russia is the only country that suggests the downing of the Malaysian Airliner in 2014 was anyone’s fault but their own rebel forces in the Ukraine. Cyberattacks a year ago on their infrastructure left a third of the country without electricity. Fake news complemented Russian incursions into Crimea. U.K. investigation into the Litvinenko plutonium poisoning points directly at the Kremlin. Lithuania was an early testing ground for Russia’s use of cyber warfare that has more recently spread to Germany. Planting child pornography on victims’ computers and then sending a tip to local police is another trick playing out with Russian dissidents in the U.K., among other places.

We go back then to reports from our own intelligence sources in October that it was Russian military forces behind the Democratic National Party computer hack. That brings us to the question of state sponsored and/or state blind-eye encouragement of fake news intended to influence U.S domestic politics. And so long as we are impugning character, let us not forget about the from-the-top, state-sponsored, across-the-board Russian fraud of athletic doping. Or Aleppo, and Syria, and the repeated Russian air strike violations of ceasefires for humanitarian relief that have now resulted in an almost certain win for an exceedingly cruel and power-hungry Assad government.  

That’s quite a list. Putin’s contempt for honesty, fairness and democracies is not a secret. His singular focus is power, obtained and maintained at any cost, an end that justifies every and all means. Let’s add the obvious: Assange is in his pocket. What at one time might have been intriguing about WikiLeaks has lost all trust and luster with this relationship. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we have the Vance memoir among many reports to tell us that disaffected segments of U.S. society do not believe in government, politicians (except for the one that lies the most), or “media.” “A guy with a rifle from North Carolina goes into a D.C. pizza parlor purported to be child sex slave shop” is not the beginning of a bad joke but is evidently the sad fact of a well-intentioned man with a screw-loose hero complex. The scariest data point for me is the statistic in Yascha Mounk’s survey on the stability of democracies.  Per his report, ours doesn’t look to be in good shape. “The share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.” How disordered must perceptions be to think that military rule is a good thing or even comports with a democratic republic?

 Our way out of this morass is not through technology.  To be sure, we must continue to advance education in cybersecurity. My academic guess, by the way, is that with the selection of Michigan’s Provost Martha Pollack for the Presidency of Cornell University – an inspired choice – Cornell will remain among the best at this craft by bringing its already existing strengths in Artificial Intelligence and Security together in new and creative ways that will advance cybersecurity to a new level of sophistication and performance. But no matter how advanced, that flank is ultimately for specialists. This challenge needs, at the start and from the top of government, diplomacy. Information security specialists, do you notice the reduction in Chinese APTs in the last year or so? That shift can be traced back to President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States and conversations with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Obama in 2015. 

 Already existing international organizations and those yet to be created need to focus intensively on this issue. Nirvana is not the goal. Stemming havoc is, and one that will not be achieved without engagement. Cynical assumptions that such engagement will never achieve perfection misses the point. Cyber insecurity affects every aspect of internet communications, commerce and content. Were such disruptions occurring as routinely on our seas, on land, in the air, we would all be talking about it. How much damage and destruction in cyberspace, and its connections to everything else that information technologies touch – infrastructure not least, needs to occur to engender the understanding that while the internet has different modes of operation it is nonetheless still very much a part of the physical world, not an exception to it. As such, it exists within the dimensions of governance.
In the United States, if we collectively continue to have a commitment to democracy, it requires serious education and every level and with “moonshot” dedication and spirit. Call it information literacy, fluency or whatever you like, the point is that critical thinking is the key. These skills draw on the natural curiosity of healthy, secure children. These skills should be inculcated in nurturing as well as educating youth, getting them comfortable and savvy about technology and how both good and bad work on the internet. Critical thinking skills should not be confused with categorial disbelief bound in cliches (“MSM lies") or infused with a poverty of spirit which is the cynic’s perch but shaped and tempered to encourage judgment that can detect attempts to bury, shroud or misshape truth.

If we find other challenges nestled in this quest, for example a lack of supports for the health and security of children, family and social structures that do not provide adequate care, public educational systems gutted with the savage inequalities that marred generations past --a national sin for which we have yet to repent — then we must address the grasping that exacerbates social divide, the aversion that keeps us from proper and productive action, or the delusion that, like poppies, has fallen over our body politic. 

Hyperbole? No, our reality is not pretty, and we cannot afford to be naive about it. If recognizing how painful our place is in service of awakening to act in a manner that preserves and strengthens traditional institutions and values, one that honors this country’s better angels, then let us come, however resistant, to that awareness before it is too late. Of the many aspects of the president-elect’s prospects that concern me, the one that worries me the most is his apparent refusal to acknowledge the threatening game that Putin has for some time now been playing in all fields and on the internet not least  If that refusal comes out of pedestrian selfishness because in the short term that influence had a salutary electoral effect for Trump, it is one that underscores the limitations of this president-elect. If it comes from something more self-interested than that, it borders on treasonous. 

As a prognosticating historian, I have long chit-chatted amongst friends about the future of the United States. That theory includes the Church of Latter-day Saints, like the Christians of Ancient Rome, picking up the pieces of an antiquate republic broken by wealth, corruption and malfeasance. For 30 years now I played this parlor game firm in the belief that I projected hundreds of years in advance, long after my children’s children would experience it. Work in technology has schooled me in how technology accelerates change. And I am also aware that a “perfect storm” of factors can coalesce at various “turning points” to make what had been before that moment one of gradual change suddenly move climates or social change forward very fast. But in all my attempts to be entertaining, even to offer sometimes big-headed predictions, I never thought I would live to see the day when I genuinely felt there was an especially significant threat to social order upon us in the United States.  I am now at that point. 

 People of good will, it is time to act. Write your congress person to support an unclassified investigation into Russian cyber influence in U.S. politics.  Talk with your family and friends about these issues. Advocate for better public education in information literacy whether it be in schools, libraries or in politics.  Make it an issue about which you expect elected official to be knowledgeable and responsible. Many posts ago, during the election, I rued that neither candidate talked enough about all of the economic, social and political issues related to the internet. From understanding our economy to protecting our national security, we need that conversation, tout suite. 


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