Honestly, we don’t know yet. There was a time when our voting preferences, our political leanings, our policy choices were our own business. Now they are someone else’s business, quite literally. There are so many stories coming out about Donald Trump’s connections to and collusion with the Russians that it is getting hard to keep these accusations straight. Here’s the latest:
Trump Russia Investigation Update
The key word is help. As in, actively provide information that the Russians may not have been able to discover on their own. “Help” is not a synonym for encourage, appreciate or enjoy.
Without getting too political (because after all, this is a cyber security blog), here are the basics of the Trump-Russia Investigation from a cyber security perspective:
- The Trump campaign had possession of a huge amount of information about American voters from Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm hired to help collect and use social media information to identify and persuade voters to vote (or not vote), through an activity known as political micro-targeting.
- Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser in the White House, was head of digital strategy during the campaign, meaning he was overseeing this effort to micro-target voters.
- The Russians unleashed bots, or robotic commands, that swept across the Internet and picked up fake news stories or harshly critical news stories about Hillary Clinton and disseminated them across the United States. By Election Day, these bots had delivered critical and phony news about the Democratic presidential nominee to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of millions of voters.
- Some investigators suspect the Russians micro-targeted voters in swing states, even in key precincts where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton.
So the question is this: Did the Trump campaign, using what we assume to be lawfully-obtained micro-targeted voter intelligence, give access to the Russians so that they could point harmful disinformation campaigns at those vulnerable jurisdictions?
Many top security analysts doubt Russian operatives could have independently “known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states.” As Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said recently, “I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware (of) really raises some questions … How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?”
And that is Senator Mark Warner’s mistake – that the micro-targeting had to be so specific that it only hit potential Trump voters in certain jurisdictions. It did not. The campaigns could have been aimed at every person in that state, let alone the jurisdiction, only touching the opinions of those who were ready to hear the message. A phishing campaign isn’t sent only to those people in an organization most vulnerable to that type of social engineering – it is sent to everyone, and the most vulnerable are the only ones that respond. Similarly, it was good enough for Russia to cast their anti-Hillary message in the general vicinity of the target; there was no need for a bullseye to render the disinformation campaign to be effective. Those who received the message but were slightly outside of the voter profile or geographical jurisdiction simply recognized it for what it was, false news. The rest were unethically influenced.
But we don’t know yet if there is a connection between the micro-targeting big data purchased by the campaign and the Russian botnet disinformation attack. We do know, however, that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the election – and that is what we as cyber security experts, must focus on.
Either way – collusion or not – the implications against our privacy (let alone the political ramifications of foreign entities influencing our election process) are huge. Remember, the Trump campaign had obtained this huge volume of information on every voter, maybe as much as 500 points of data from what kind of food do they eat to what are their attitudes about health care reform or climate change. And yes, I’m sure the Democrats had much of the same information and probably didn’t “play fair” either. The point is that we have gotten so far beyond just accepting that our personal information is readily available and easily manipulated that no one is even bringing up that part of the story.
We, America, have been lulled into allowing everyone else – corporations, our government, even foreign nations – to have more access to our data footprint than even we do.
John Sileo is an an award-winning author and keynote speaker on cyber security. John specializes in making security entertaining, so that it works. John is CEO of The Sileo Group, whose clients include the Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security & Pfizer. John’s body of work includes appearances on 60 Minutes, Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper & Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.