/ 22 May 2017

The cyber-war(s) being fought right under our noses

Cyber security.
Cyber security.

TIME magazine invariably has very clever, multi-faceted covers, the latest one being no exception. It shows the White House – the American president’s residence and workplace, all in one – being slowly, but surely, devoured by Saint Basil’s Cathedral, with its red brick walls and colourful onion domes, which stands on the Red Square and is part of Russia’s Kremlin, or centre of political power. 

Metonymically speaking, it represents the Kremlin, infiltrating and transmogrifying the seat of one of the centres of American political power – the presidency. To anyone familiar with the appearance of these two buildings and what they represent, it is immediately apparent what this clever TIME cover is saying: Russia is taking over US political power in a vampire-like fashion, where the life-blood of the latter is being sucked out by the former, modifying its substance in the process.

OK, but what information is this clever picture based on? If you haven’t read it in TIME, you may have picked it up from other news sites on the internet, but wherever you have gleaned it from, you would know that it alludes not only to the now infamous, alleged Russian hacking into Hillary Clinton’s (and generally the Democratic Party’s) e-mails in the course of last year’s presidential campaign, although this is part of it insofar as the intention of such hacking – so the claim goes – was to influence the outcome of the election in Donald Trump’s favour.

How was this supposed to be done, you may wonder. American counter-intelligence officials believe that Russian hackers helped to distribute apocryphal stories – “disinformation” – to selected audiences via the internet on social media. Here is a sampling of the kind of rumours in question, from the article by Massimo Calabresi (TIME, May 18, 2017): “On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a September 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere, people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a Democratic Party staffer. Just before election day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a paedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlour.”

From the above, you may get an impression of the kind of “war” I have in mind when alluding to a cyber war being fought right under our noses. Contrary to what one might expect, it is not a war that – in this case, at least – is aimed at bringing down a country’s military, or spy agency (as in the cyber-terrorist attacks on M16 in Sam Mendes’s James Bond film, Skyfall), or its electricity grid, but one that is betting on the chaos that might just ensue if sufficient amounts of disinformation are disseminated among selected groups of people in a country – those who can make a difference by expressing their opinion, and through their actions. And in a world as suffused with excessive, virtually unassimilable amounts of information as ours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between information one can trust and the kind you cannot rely on as being accurate.

To return to evidence of Russian hacking: Calabresi’s article – titled Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America – focuses on something that is more recent than the 2016 hacking saga. From what was said above it should already be clear that the Russians are intent on influencing public opinion in the US; evidently they have taken another step in this direction since 2016, judging by a recent US counter-intelligence report. In Calabresi’s words:

“It [the report] described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.

“As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.”

To anyone who is aware of technology’s pharmakon-character (being poison AND cure simultaneously), instead of naively believing that it is only and exclusively beneficial to the human race, this would come as no surprise. And human beings being what they are – beings primarily driven by desire – it is predictable that, given the electronic communication devices of today (which put them in contact with every domain that triggers their desire), they would attempt to gain access to the information that interests them, only to fall right into the trap of these sophisticated hackers. The result, as Calabresi indicates above, is that when messages coming from the captured Twitter accounts – being sent by the Russian hackers controlling these accounts – are sent to thousands of people on Twitter carrying disinformation, these can sow complete confusion and, depending on the messages, chaos.

The irony of this situation should escape no one: the internet and the devices that enable us to use it have been seen as an undiluted blessing for humankind – not by everyone, admittedly; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Sherry Turkle, Bernard Stiegler, as well as Manuel Castells, to mention only a few, harbour no such illusions – but here it becomes abundantly apparent that these “marvellous inventions” are somewhat of a poisoned gift. Small wonder that the phrase “fake news” was coined recently. The problem is that it is not at all easy to distinguish “fake” from “real” news, for the obvious reason that, most of the time, one has to depend on the very same media that are the source of the confusion in the first place, to try and dispel it. Unless one happens, in very few cases, to have access to the sources themselves; but how many people are in that position?

Of course, this “war” that is being waged at present is only one such war – albeit at a very high level of international espionage and influence through disinformation. Much closer to home for most of us there is the war that targets ordinary people and assumes the shape of criminal attempts to infiltrate one’s computer, your e-mails and especially your bank accounts – for obvious reasons – using all kinds of malware, from spy malware to viruses like the recent, appropriately-named WannaCry virus.

From information that is freely available, such cyber-attacks appear to have reached the point where, even if one uses advanced anti-virus software, you can never be sure that the cyber criminals are not one step ahead of your own attempts at securing your device and accounts. Personally, without fail, I run a scan with an updated anti-malware programme immediately before I use internet banking – every time, lest an unwanted electronic enemy has slipped in on the back of an e-mail or through some internet portal. 

And I NEVER open any e-mail I don’t recognise, let alone click on a link that I don’t have good reason to trust – even when it originated from a friend’s e-address. We are in a war zone in more than one sense.