The United States government must evaluate the role of social media networks in facilitating Russia’s ongoing cyberwarfare campaigns in European elections and Eastern European government affairs, two cybersecurity experts argued during an event Wednesday.
Speaking on a panel organized by the Alexander Hamilton Society, an international relations club, James Carafano (GRD ’85, GRD ’00), vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank, and Samuel Visner (SFS ’76), director of the National Cybersecurity Federally Funded Research and Development Center, debated the merits of increased government action against Russian cyberwarfare.
Robert Lieber, a government and international affairs professor, moderated the panel.
Both panelists acknowledged the United States’ intelligence community’s assessment of active and coordinated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but they cautioned against conflating correlation and causation regarding Russian cyberattacks and U.S. election results.
A Jan. 6 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, CIA and NSA concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a sophisticated and extended campaign to manipulate public opinion, attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bolster support for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and undermine confidence in the American electoral process.
“We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report reads. “When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency.”
The interference campaign included manipulation of social media networks including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, as well as disinformation outlets disguised as legitimate news outlets like the RT network in the United States.
Visner said cybersecurity measures must be improved to strengthen electoral processes.
“It’s time for us to improve the cybersecurity of the electoral system, and I’ll go further, and I don’t just mean the system that counts votes,” Visner said. “I do think that means the system that is being used to transmit information so that people are no longer simply bombarded with information without any sense of provenance or without any hope of attribution.”
However, Carafano said that any given solution to dealing with social networking information must respect civil liberties.
“[A solution] has to not infringe on the basic liberty of American citizens, which means their free access to information and their freedom to be stupid,” Carafano said.
Carafano said the U.S. should first determine the consequences of the Russian cyberattacks before deciding to commit resources instead of responding with a knee-jerk reaction because Russia was involved.
“Where I think there is an honest place to have debate is the efficacy of these activities,” Carafano said.
Visner said Russian interference was not directly connected to Trump’s victory.
“It’s dangerous to argue that coincidence is a causality,” Visner said. “The fact that the Russians attempted to affect the U.S. election and the fact that the election resulted in, gave us a result that many people didn’t expect, does not necessarily connect the two.”
The U.S. has a tendency to emphasize capabilities and exclude intentions, Visner said.
“We didn’t see this coming because we focused on capabilities,” Visner said. “We talk a lot about the resources without asking what the resources are for.”
Visner said the Russians aim to provoke the global community through their political strategy.
“[The Russians,] as a declining power, are insurgents, and insurgents do not want to shake the international system. They want to shock the international system,” Visner said.
Carafano compared U.S. and Russian motives in conducting cyberwarfare. Unlike the U.S., which demands concrete objectives, the Russians consider cyberwarfare as a means of “creating opportunity, not creating effects or outcomes,” Carafano said.
Visner and Carafano also discussed Russia’s foreign policy objectives, including its desire to craft a sphere of influence in the Eastern Europe, a region formerly controlled by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
The panelists placed cyberwarfare in the broader context of hybrid warfare a combination of physical, unconventional and symbolic attacks on a nation with the intent to undermine legitimacy, sovereignty and integrity.
Visner said hybrid warfare is a new technique, which employs cyberwarfare as a part of statecraft. Russia, Visner said, plans to reassert itself as a power in the “near abroad” region, which includes countries such as Ukraine, using this startegy.
Most recently, Ukraine continues to field military strikes and cyberattacks, which began in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea that house part of Russia’s naval fleet, and Donbass, a region in eastern Ukraine that continues to witness heavy violence between the Ukrainian military and Russian armed militants led by Russian military officials.
Russian president Vladimir Putin aims to seize control of U.S. influence in Europe, Carafano said.
“He would like to see American power essentially retreat from Europe.”