February 21, 2018

February 21, 2018

Armageddon by degree. I’m no expert in cyber-security, but I’ve given a lot of thought to the health of American democracy. It was in none too robust a condition even before Vladimir Putin let loose his army of covert trolls and bots to wreak havoc. Thus, anybody who cares about our democracy needs to care about cyber-security.

Lurking beneath the Mueller revelations about Russian disruption of the core of American democracy is a problem from hell. How do we prevent the Kremlin from either hijacking our process of deliberation with malicious, fake social media activism, or meddling with our patchwork system of elections generally?

Since all of this leads back to Putin, the most efficient way to shut it down would be to significantly raise the cost to Putin of continuing these badly disguised Kremlin operations. But how? Interviews with senior cyber-security experts and a reading of various reports and congressional testimonies suggest that the smartest people in the national security establishment feel stymied.

Both the Americans and the Russians have the capacity to take out each other’s vital systems that depend on internet-based controls—everything from national defense to civil aviation to the water supply to the banking system. We’ve seen this technique used very sparingly, as in the case of the Stuxnet worm that disabled Iranian centrifuges.

But for the most part, where the U.S. and Russia are concerned, there has been a tacit understanding of mutual restraint, not unlike the nuclear restraint given the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nobody would win a demolition derby to use cyber-warfare to destroy each other’s vital infrastructure.

But there the similarity ends. Putin breached that understanding when he decided to disrupt American democracy. And the smartest people in the room don’t know what to do about it.

The efforts late in the Obama administration to punish Russia by freezing some bank assets and banning some travel are pitiful. But should America take out, say, the Moscow subway? Or publish fake Russian news to embarrass Putin? Or just what?

Experts have been thrown back on the idea that it’s up to the social media platforms to police themselves, perhaps with some collaboration with government cyber agencies. This seems improbable. Can we really expect Facebook and Twitter to identify multi-camouflaged trolls? Having social media platforms try to play whack-a-mole is no substitute for a national strategy.

Our friend Art Goldhammer points to the case of a report in the German tabloid Bild, that the efforts of the left wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to get members to vote against the proposed Merkel-SPD coalition was abetted by Russian trolls. But then another, satirical publication claimed that it had hoaxed Bild. (And maybe that was itself a hoax by The Onion.)

We are in Hall of Mirrors land. The shortest distance between the mess we are in and a remedy to rescue democracy is posing unacceptable costs to Putin. A Nobel Prize awaits the people who figure out what that strategy is.