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Cyber Influence Operations and the Elections

by Mike Olivier, MBA, MSCS

Combating Cyber Influences

News reports regarding cybersecurity have become an almost daily occurrence; and they are constant in reporting cyberattacks against both industry and the government, and over the past several months there has been a focus on elections.

. In terms of success, cyberattacks against business and government have resulted in billions of dollars in losses and millions in revenue for the attackers. These attacks have also resulted in the compromise of the personal data for millions. In terms of the impact on elections it is harder to measure. However, it is important to note that there is no evidence that the outcome, or the result of any election has been determined by a direct cyberattack.

The reality is that the attacker’s goal is to not change the result of one particular election; and what is going on in cyberspace is nothing new. The term used to describe these types of activities is Influence Operations, and these operations have existed since the dawn of the bronze age nation states. Since the time of the Greek and Persian Empires, and the Chinese dynasties. At some point these nation states began to think of ways to move their advisories through messaging and political maneuvering, through propaganda. They found it cheaper and less risky than invasion and open warfare. The idea is to influence the population and the decision makers, it is to nudge your adversary in a particular direction. Influence Operations take a long and strategic view. During the decades of the Cold War, Influence Operations were the propaganda campaigns between the Western Democracies and the Socialist States. Today Influence Operations continue, and they are now rooted in the realm of cyberspace. In terms of the US elections there is no evidence that any cyber event changed any vote, or did not account for any vote. For these nation state actors, their focus is not on directly changing votes, their influence goal is to sow dissent and mistrust on the integrity of the election system. Their strategic goal is to weaken, distract, and disorient their adversary. Their tool is misinformation. There are three pillars of cyber security they are confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Briefly stated confidentiality is the security of information, integrity is the assurance that the information and its sources are genuine, and availability is the assurance of access to information. It is the assurance of, or the lack of integrity that is the essence of Influence Operations. For influence to be effective the receiver of the mis-information must assume the information is accurate and from a reliable source. This is often not too hard when the receiver finds information that reinforces their beliefs and understanding of the world; and it is in social media where the ground has proven to be most fertile for these misinformation campaigns. It is the Russian intelligence services that have proven to be most imaginative in their use of social media to ignite the passions on the right and left of the political spectrum. Their Influence Operation campaigns have objectives with measurable results. They begin with investigations and reconnaissance, they move to creating multiple false personas or actors. In addition to actors they create autonomous online actors or bots that can post and spread misinformation rapidly through the targeted social media outlets. They have been known to invest in their success. The US House Intelligence Committee lists that the Russian Internet Research Agency paid for over 3,500 Facebook ads that supposedly reached 11.4 million users. Their goal is to operate at the extremes of each group, it is to polarize and to obliterate the middle ground. The Russians are not acting alone. In parallel and independently are other nation state actors to include the Iranians and the Chinese. For each of these countries ground zero for spreading misinformation to cause political confusion amongst opposition parties and dissenters are their own countries. The point in this is all consumers of social media and internet news need to be intelligent consumers. The integrity of social media and information on the internet cannot be assessed. If you are on the internet you are by definition a consumer of information, that being the case it is easy to fall into the trap of believing and gravitating to only the information sources that you want to be true.

References and Such

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