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What will it take for Americans, especially our politicians, to care about Russian election interference? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since early 2017, when the NSA, CIA and FBI universally concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin interfered with the 2016 presidential election. At the time, I wrote a call-to-arms blog post that recommended a thorough bipartisan investigation into Russian election interference and our own cyber infrastructure weaknesses.
Last month, we finally got the Senate Intelligence Committee report about Russian election meddling in 2016—spoiler alert: they did it—with recommendations on how to protect the nation’s voting infrastructure the next time around. But to some degree, it’s too late. With only a year before the election, it will be almost impossible to make the cybersecurity and social media changes necessary to protect the integrity of the election. Even if our government engaged in an all-out defensive strategy for the four years between elections, it still might not be enough. The bad guys always seem to be one step ahead, but that’s only because of our general refusal to do what it takes to protect our systems.
In any event, so far the only all-out defensive strategy we’ve seen has been against efforts to protect the 2020 election from Russian interference. While Putin and his cohorts are dancing through the halls of the Kremlin, President Trump and the Republicans are sitting on their hands.
Trump’s refusal to back intelligence reports about Russia’s election hacking and influence campaigns—and his administration’s delay in taking action—are within months of guaranteeing that we won’t be able to stop tampering in 2020. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to block bills aimed at making the polls more secure—further ensuring that our election will be compromised once again.
And that’s precisely the point.
Why Does the White House Turn a Blind Eye to Russian Election Interference?
Both Trump and McConnell know that Russian meddling will benefit them in 2020 (it’s a safe bet that Putin doesn’t want a more confrontational president than Trump back in office), but they are missing the bigger picture.
Yes, Putin’s Russia helped elect Trump, but that wasn’t the primary goal: handing Trump a win was just icing on the cake. Putin’s goal was and is to destabilize American democracy. If we are focused on our own crises, we pay less attention to his encroachment into the Ukraine, Crimea and other nations. It doesn’t hurt that Putin’s machinations demonstrate to the world that democracy—particularly American democracy—is not as viable as autocracy, thus strengthening his power.
Putin is a chess player, and his chess board end-state looks more like the USSR than Russia.
To his delight, we are mere pawns in his game. Trump—who plays into Putin’s hands perfectly because of his distrust of American institutions, including his own intelligence agencies—is his queen and McConnell his devoted bishop.
I agree with other experts that Russia’s pre-2016 hacking of election systems in all 50 states was mostly reconnaissance for a larger campaign. They were testing the waters with this and with their Facebook influence campaigns. But I don’t think their ultimate goal is to alter votes. It’s far less work and expense to simply create the perception that they’ve altered votes or manipulated any other outcome that undermines the credibility of democracy. Again, the end game is one of destabilization, of creating doubt in the minds of Americans so we don’t know who we can trust.
Our system of state-controlled voting for national elections makes a mass hack more difficult, but altering the voting rolls is something the average teenage hacker could probably pull off. What if next time, a hacker decides to remove hundreds of thousands of white men from Mitch McConnell’s available voters, or if Facebook influence campaigns target Trump loyalists with false claims that he wants to pass gun-control legislation?
What I fear most is that we Americans, fatigued by political arm wrestling for the past three years, are going to stand complacently by as the influence campaigns and election tampering take place, and that our government has no incentive to stop it because the tampering benefits them. This time.
About Cybersecurity Keynote Speaker John Sileo
John Sileo is an award-winning author and keynote speaker on cybersecurity, identity theft and tech/life balance. He energizes conferences, corporate trainings and main-stage events by making security fun and engaging. His clients include the Pentagon, Schwab and organizations of all sizes. John got started in cybersecurity when he lost everything, including his $2 million business, to cybercrime. Since then, he has shared his experiences on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper, and even while cooking meatballs with Rachel Ray. Contact John directly to see how he can customize his presentations to your audience.