Pres. Barack Obama’s promise last week that the U.S. would respond “at a time and place of our choosing” to Russia’s alleged tampering in the recent presidential election resembles the White House’s cyber saber rattling of a few months ago, but some security experts think it is time to walk the walk.
“The main difference between earlier threats and the latest is that people think he might actually do something this time,” says James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ (CSIS) Strategic Technologies Program. “The Russians calculated that they could get away with it and that Obama was making an empty threat, and that’s one reason why if he’s made another threat now, he really has to deliver.”
The question is how to do that. In October, after months of speculation that the Russian government or someone acting on its behalf had stolen and leaked sensitive e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, administration officials warned Moscow that the U.S. was “contemplating an unprecedented cyber covert action.” Such a cloak-and-dagger response is still possible, but Obama said during a December 15 National Public Radio interview that some portion of the U.S.’s response to Russia “may be explicit and publicized.”
Whatever the options may be, “cyber is the central part of retaliating,” Lewis says. “We’re in a battle for the information space and the Internet is a key tool.” Governments, companies and other organizations are locked in “an informational struggle—a struggle over principles and values and over facts,” he adds. “We need a vigorous counter-narrative and lots of sunlight” that exposes efforts to distort the truth.
In addition to hacking, Russia employed a military style “disinformation campaign” to interfere in the U.S. election, disseminating propaganda via social media and other online forums, says O. Sami Saydjari, a former senior U.S. Department of Defense cyber expert who now runs a consultancy called the Cyber Defense Agency. That approach “is cheaper and easier to do than in the past, and the population was ripe for it during this election,” he says. “The really interesting thing that’s happened is not hacking the actual voting mechanism but rather that they attacked the beliefs,” he adds. “It’s a lesson in how cyber attacks will work because beliefs have become as important as reality.”
The story of the 2016 presidential election is how the proliferation of information sources is impacting politics, says Chris Bronk, associate director of the University of Houston’s Center for Information Security Research and Education. Bronk likens the theft and dissemination of e-mails that weakened Clinton’s campaign to “information warfare” and noted, “the Russians are playing hardball and we’re not.”
The U.S. could launch a counterpropaganda campaign in Russia in an effort to “sow dissent and distrust between Putin and his small but loyal oligarchy,” Bronk says. He adds that Germany should pay careful attention to the impact of social media and the spread of misinformation on the U.S. elections because Russia’s cyber propaganda is likely to target Germany’s elections next year. Germany’s justice minister on Sunday called for the country’s judges and state prosecutors to quickly crack down on efforts to manipulate “the political discussion with lies” spread through Facebook and other social media, according to Reuters.
U.S. intelligence agencies are now more confident that Russia was behind the hacks, with the CIA and FBI recently coming to a consensus that Russia’s goal was specifically to install Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Some officials are even saying intelligence shows that Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used.
Tracking cyber attacks back to the attackers is notoriously difficult, given all of the ways hackers can cover their tracks. Intelligence agencies have an advantage over cybersecurity investigators operating solely in the digital realm because they can corroborate clues they find in cyberspace with human intelligence, Saydjari says.
For his part, Trump has questioned why the White House waited until this past week to call for an official investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election. The delay has to do with the difficulty tracing cyberattacks back to their source and the amount of time and effort required to do a thorough computer forensic investigation. “Computer forensics investigations are not easy, and they're not quick,” Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity researcher and lecturer at Harvard University, wrote last month in a Washington Post op-ed. “They require access to the machines. They involve analysis of internet traffic. If we suspect a foreign country like Russia, the National Security Agency will analyze what they’ve intercepted from that country. This could easily take weeks, perhaps even months.”
During his NPR interview Obama made a distinction between routine intelligence gathering by countries looking after their own interests and “activating intelligence in a way that’s designed to influence elections.” He also noted that traditional efforts at propaganda are being “turbocharged by the internet and the cyber world.”
Whatever retaliation may come, the White House will be looking for actions that the incoming administration cannot easily reverse, CSIS’s Lewis says. “If Obama chooses to impose [additional] sanctions on the Russians, to undo those sanctions Pres. Donald Trump would have to sign an order saying he is lifting those sanctions. You could really complicate his life to the point where he looks like he’s doing Russia a favor by lifting the sanctions. I think that’s what the White House is gambling on.”
Beyond politics, Obama made a good point about the U.S. having to figure out how to deal with internet-enabled propaganda as we move forward, Saydjari says. “We need a nation of critical thinkers to evaluate information and guard themselves against plausible-sounding disinformation,” he says. “An investment in better education would be a long-term value in arming our country for the future.”