Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Internet hacking, misinformation, and our election

Donald Trump's warning that our election system is "rigged" is clearly a pre-excuse for the severe loss he's likely to incur in November.    Why, with what's shaping up to be an electoral landslide win, would the Clinton campaign try to pull off such a vast conspiracy involving multiple different voting districts?   It's the Republicans, not Democrats, that try to suppress voting with voter ID laws.

However, this does bring up a worrying threat that is very real:   attempts by foreign governments (with Russia being the prime suspect) to influence our presidential election in two ways -- (1) hacking into our elections' computer systems of voter-registration data and (2) a disinformation campaign by planting false stories in our news media and social media.

(1)  The FBI has reported evidence that foreign hackers have already penetrated into computer systems of two state election boards and, in one state, extracted voter registration databases.    Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has warned election officials across the country to increase their cyber-security systems and offered his department's help in preventing further intrusions.

Although neither the FBI or Johnson identified the two states, journalist Michael Isikoff says they are Arizona and Illinois and that it forced Illinois to shut down its voter registration system for 10 days in late July.   According to Isikoff's sources, data on 200,000 voters was extracted, while in Arizona there was an attempt to install malicious software but no data was taken.

However, Tom Kellermann, head of Strategic Cyber Ventures, told Politico that these intrusions fit the patterns of the Russian's digital targeting of European governments that he has been tracking for years.   He believes they have now turned their sights to the U.S. election.

(2)  The New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar reported on Monday, in an article titled "Russia's Powerful Weapon:  The Spread of False Stories," that Russia is using this tactic in Sweden and other European countries to undermine NATO.   Preventing the expansion of NATO is a centerpiece of Russian foreign policy and underlies Putin's invasions into Crimea, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Consider this:   Neutral, peace-loving Sweden, by choice, has not been a member of NATO;  but there is now serious discussion going on there about joining.   Suddenly a rash of false stories began appearing on social media:  that NATO would use Sweden to stockpile nuclear weapons;  that NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.     A typical Kremlin tactic is to plant such a false story on social media, then the news media report on that story -- and thus spread it "legitimately," along with it going viral on social media.

The problem of false information is so serious that NATO and the European Union have established special offices to identify and refute disinformation.  Although they cannot positively identify the source, Russia remains the prime suspect.    In another case, they were able to trace Russia's involvement in a forged letter, purportedly from the defense minister, recommending weapons sales to Ukraine, which would be illegal under Swedish law.

We know, from our FBI investigations, that the Russian government was behind the hacking into the emails of the Democratic National Committee.    So there is no reason to doubt that they will try to influence the outcome of our election.

And we know, from multiple indicators, that Vladimir Putin strongly favors Donald Trump -- one being that Russia's state-controlled media prints nothing but positive stories about him.   At first, the "bromance" between Putin and Trump was treated in our media as a joke -- but we should now recognize that, whatever Trump's motive, Putin is deadly serious.   Which one, Trump or Clinton, do you think is more susceptible to Putin's manipulation?

So, far from a rigged election to favor Hillary Clinton, let's look at the opposite possibility.   If Donald Trump wins, I will be the first to suspect that somehow Russia hacked into our elections system and pulled off a coup.


PS:   MacFarguhar's article pointed out that Russia has another aim in this disinformation campaign:   to sow doubt into what can be believed.  "The underlying narrative is:  Don't Trust Anyone."   That is an important matter, but it is a different story for another time.

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