The next battle in the global cyberwar
On Tuesday, we looked at the history of cyberwar. Today, on screens around the world, we see its consequences. Vladimir Putin’s pick for the White House will be handed both the world’s largest economy and its largest military. Unfortunately, the US is not alone in this new campaign of cyber-subjugation.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Russia is embarking upon an aggressive intervention programme to destabilise Western democracies. This is being conducted using a range of approaches, not just cyber. Nevertheless, it’s becoming a central part of the Russian arsenal – particularly for operations against more powerful adversaries.
Here’s how this war is currently playing out.
Whether by accident or design, Russia’s intervention in Syria has caused a flood of refugees into Europe. This has fractured the political consensus necessary to keep such a disparate block of nations together. The dissenters include the socially-conservative eastern European nations of the Visegrad group – as well as populist Western politicians, such as Marine le Pen in France. Together, they threaten the very fabric of European integrations – the so-called “Four Freedoms” model. The strain on Germany, clearly the largest and most powerful economy in the eurozone, is palpable. Since the recent Christmas market attack, and the Cologne mass sexual assaults a year ago, a significant backlash against Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy has occurred. This backlash isn’t merely domestic, and it is causing repercussions far beyond Germany’s borders.
This could just be a lucky break on Putin’s part, but he’s playing the situation beautifully. He’s followed up on the conventional war in Syria with a programme of cyber-warfare and subterfuge in Europe. Putin’s funding has been traced to many radical opposition movements across Europe. These include the Five Star Movement in Italy and Front National in France. The US is currently looking into these links – but with Trump now at the top, this investigation isn’t likely to get very far.
So, where does cyberwar fit into all of this?
We’ve seen in the US how Russian hacking can aid particular political parties. This practice is likely to continue in future, all over Europe. But it doesn’t stop there. Russia has an additional weapon in its cyber-arsenal: fake news.
In investigating the Trump victory, PropOrNot has identified a list of 200 media organisations. These are all suspected Putin fronts – or at least compromised by Russian interference. Together, this Russian influence has allegedly amassed over 213 million page views – manipulating public opinion and exerting significant pressure on democracies. In modern cyber-warfare, you don’t necessarily need to conduct technically-sophisticated attacks. Putin has shown that social media can be easily distorted by paid trolls, low-tech bots and “useful idiots”.
This war is only going to expand in Europe. The German government is now reporting hostile activities to place fake news in German media. One notable case involved a fabricated rape story, concerning a girl of Russian heritage.
But why bother?
It’s no surprise that dictators act quickly to degrade and destroy independent media. A free press is the fabric of a society which is capable of supporting a resilient democracy. To see the alternative, one only has to look at the shambles that is Russia Today (now rebranded RT). This “news channel” has even seen an anchor walk off air, midway through a broadcast. Liz Wahl was disgusted at the partisan, pro-Putin propaganda that staff are being asked to pump out. Another anchor, Sara Firth, stated bluntly that “We do work for Putin”.
So, what is the West’s response?
To run his cybersecurity programme, Trump has employed the services of Rudy Giuliani. Naturally, Giuliani is a Pinocchio partisan, with no technical competence whatsoever. Other reported appointees are political insiders and lawyers. There is no evidence of any serious attempt to build a capable cyber-aware security team. Whether this results from incompetence, or a conspiracy with the Russians, is currently a moot point. It may just be down to Trump’s abject incapability in office. Nevertheless, the result is both shocking and dangerous. The world’s largest economy, and more importantly its greatest military power, has no effective leadership of its cyber-warfare strategy. Trump is also doing his best to discredit and undermine the skilled work of government agencies – at least when it suits him to do so.
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