Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

America needs a strategy before Russia meddles in 2018 elections


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Congress has summoned executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to testify on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. As the intelligence committees ask tough questions about how Kremlin-backed actors used social media platforms to sow discord and attempt to influence our politics, we should keep one key point in mind: This is not just a Facebook problem or a Google problem or a Twitter problem. It is a national security problem and one that the Trump administration has yet to acknowledge, let alone develop an effective national response to.

Last year, Russia launched a multifaceted campaign right out of the old KGB playbook to influence the presidential election and tarnish American democracy. While several European countries had experienced similar attacks in the past, Moscow’s combination punch of cyberhacking, fake news, disinformation, and courting of a candidate’s inner circle was unprecedented in the American context.

Although the full extent of Russian meddling in our election is still being investigated, the U.S. intelligence community made clear Moscow’s objectives to discredit democracy by sowing doubt and dissent in the U.S. electorate, support the election of a candidate that President Vladimir Putin judged would be easier to deal with, and ultimately enable Russia to reclaim its status as a great power on the world stage.While some may be tempted to think that Russia’s tampering ended with the last election, there is every indication that Moscow will continue to use information warfare against us. Imagine what the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election will be like if, in the face of U.S. inaction, Moscow is able to conduct cyberattacks at will, leak candidate emails, spread fake news and ads across multiple social media platforms, and interfere with voting systems in ways that call the legitimacy of outcomes into question?

The United States urgently needs is a clear strategy and action plan to prevent and deter the next Russian campaign in 2018 or 2020. This will require a wide-ranging collaborative effort across federal, state, and local governments, as well as with technology and media industry partners focused on two key objectives. First, improve our capabilities to defend against and counter key elements of Russian information warfare. Second, develop a strategy designed to impose costs to deter Putin from future interference.

So far, President Trump has denied and disputed the facts of Russia’s interference rather than lead such a nationwide effort to improve our ability to deter and defend against future attacks on our democracy. For starters, the United States must strengthen the cybersecurity of all election-related systems and processes. With the help of the technology industry, candidates, campaigns, and political parties should take the steps necessary to make themselves harder to hack, from adopting better cyber hygiene such as multifactor authentication, different passwords for different accounts, and taking care about what is written in email, to avoiding the use of insecure technologies when more secure and encrypted alternatives are available.

In addition, state and local governments should assess and address key vulnerabilities in their voting infrastructures, which Russia probed extensively in 2016. One promising idea is to deploy voting machines that generate a verifiable paper audit trail. A second line of defense would involve strengthening post-election audit capabilities, applying statistically rigorous methods to improve confidence in the reported results. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security should take the lead in setting broad security standards, while Congress should create a federal grants program to assist states in meeting these standards over the next three years.

Countering Russian disinformation and “fake news” may be the most difficult area, given our fundamental commitment to free speech, a strong and independent media, and a free and an open internet. Reducing the impact of “fake news” will require much closer collaboration between the public and private sectors. Facebook, Google, and other technology companies have pledged to take steps to counter the misuse of their platforms, including notifying users who have been targeted, working with candidates, campaigns, and political parties to improve the security of their online networks and social media, improving efforts to identify and remove fake accounts, strengthening their ability to distinguish content generated by human beings from content generated by bots, tagging and deprioritizing suspect content, and enhancing the transparency surrounding paid ads. These efforts should be applauded and built upon.

We also need to impose costs on Moscow sufficient to make Putin think twice about launching cyber attacks and information operations. Washington should publically “out” Russian activities targeting our election systems, news media, and social media. We also need to develop a clear strategy and robust set of options for responding to significant cyber intrusions, including working with Congress and the European Union to develop a broader set of sanctions that could be used to impose greater costs on Russia should it intervene in future elections on either side of the Atlantic.

In sum, while Russia has made social media platforms a battlefield in its attacks on democracy, the platforms themselves are not the problem. Indeed, companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are essential partners in developing solutions. While Putin might salivate at the thought of the most innovative sector of the U.S. economy being saddled with cumbersome regulation, Congress should resist that temptation. What’s needed most urgently is not more regulation, but a national action plan that harnesses the innovative problem solving of the technology sector to render future Russian attacks ineffective. Our democracy and our national security depend on it.

Michèle Flournoy was undersecretary of policy at the U.S. Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012. She is co-founder of West Exec Advisors, which consults for a variety of companies, including Facebook.

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