As I See It: Cold War 2.0
May 4, 2015 Victor Rozek
Russian history is one of repeated repression blanketing systemic failure. But it is also a history of a resilient people adapting to state-imposed limitations. Russia’s cultural achievements are a testament to intelligence successfully seeking expression, often against great odds.
Defying state control over their lives and prospects, the exceptionally gifted gravitated toward arenas in which they could exercise a measure of control over their careers. Whatever flavor of oppression they were forced to swallow–Czarist, Stalinist, or Communist–creative minds found refuge in fields such as literature, music, dance, and notably chess–the only global domination communism ever managed to achieve.
Move the clock ahead a half-century, and Russia is no less authoritarian, having swapped Communist rule for an oligarchy controlled by a man who exhibits classic signs of psychopathy. But intelligent people continue to adapt and, in an historic redux, some of Russia’s most brilliant minds are again finding refuge in a form of virtual warfare: not chess this time, but hacking.
For those of you who missed it, the Cold War is alive and well and being fought in cyberspace.
U.S. authorities and cyber security experts freely acknowledge that Russia has developed a highly skilled cabal of hackers. Recently an administration spokesman admitted that State Department and White House systems had been infiltrated. Officials told CNN “investigators believe the White House intrusion began with a phishing email that was launched using a State Department email account that the hackers had taken over.” The malware and tactics employed in the attack were apparently “consistent with state-sponsored espionage and aimed at stealing sensitive data.”
Although the breech was characterized as “one of the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against government systems,” the White House press secretary claimed they occurred on “unclassified systems.” So, not to worry; the attacks were more annoying than hazardous. Then again, gaining access to the President’s non-public schedule could prove hazardous, but at least the launch codes are still safe. We think.
If this all sounds like obfuscation, it probably is. Who would be honest or stupid enough to advertise the fact that classified networks had been compromised? Classified or not, the mere fact that hackers are camping out at the White House gives new meaning to transparency.
All of this may (or may not) explain why Hillary Clinton chose to use a private server to conduct State Department business. But that server was apparently hacked as well although, as far as we know, not by the Russians. (Incidentally, for those long on outrage and short on memory, the practice of bypassing government servers was started by the George W. Bush White House.)
While government v. government hacking is the most polite and clandestine form of undeclared war, financial cybercrime is more visible and more contentious. It appears that some of the best Russian minds are also the most larcenous. And their activities, if not directly sponsored by the state, certainly have its blessing.
Because financial institutions, like governments, are reluctant to reveal the extent of their losses, actual figures are unknown. But according to a newly released report sponsored by McAfee, global cyber activity “is costing up to $500 billion each year, which is almost as much as the estimated cost of drug trafficking.”
For Russia, cybercrime is one of its few growth industries, and it wants to protect its market share. Russian authorities have staunchly refused to cooperate with U.S. criminal investigations. Their ho-hum attitude toward homegrown hackers has prompted American law enforcement to seek help from its allies. When suspected hackers travel abroad, imprudent enough to stray from the protective skirts of the Motherland, they are scooped up and extradited by cooperating nations. Most recently, Spain, the Maldives, and the Netherlands have contributed to our stash of Russian hackers awaiting trial for some of the biggest cybercrimes in history. But identifying and capturing these guys is a whack-a-mole pursuit.
For their part, Russian authorities are apoplectic about the seizure of their hackers. They assert that any trials would be nothing more than political theatre. And they should know. Russia has a long history of political show trials dating back to Stalin and Bukharin who teamed up to purge Trotskyites from their workers’ paradise. Bukharin himself was later jettisoned from paradise, tried and executed on the orders of his BFF, Stalin.
But if the brightest Ruskies become hackers, the dimmer ones become trolls. The government has an undisclosed number of them on the payroll (including journalists and bloggers) whose job is to spread the gospel according to Putin. For a time their labors went largely unnoticed, until Russia started invading its neighbors.
Now, critics of Russia and its petulant leader are swarmed by aggressive trolls. Armed with talking points, approved phraseology, and propaganda, they dominate threads and swamp forums making rational discussion all but impossible. Their efforts range from the absurd: “There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, only patriotic volunteers” (who just happened to bring a lot of advanced weaponry with them), to the racist: posting pictures of President Obama as a monkey.
And occasionally their true colors bleed through: “Americans should know that the “U.S., and EU are puppets of the wicked Jews who started the mess in the Ukraine.”
According to Buzzfeed, “each troll is expected to post 50 news articles daily and maintain six Facebook and 10 Twitter accounts, with 50 tweets per day. At these rates, a small army of one thousand trolls will post 100,000 news articles and tweets per day.”
The question that cries out for an answer is “why bother?” Certainly no one outside of censored Russia is being swayed. Hearts and minds are won by actions, not propaganda. Just ask our very own State Department trolls, the optimistically christened “Digital Outreach Team.” Their efforts are largely aimed at combating jihadists and generating a positive image of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. And we all know how well that’s going.
Regardless, in the digital age we can safely assume that every government is armed with its own trident of military hackers, economic cybercriminals, and political trolls. Whether it’s North Korea retaliating against Sony Pictures for its bad taste in movies, or five members of the Chinese military who were indicted last year for hacking U.S. companies, a new multi-directional Cold War is raging and recruits are in short supply.
So, if you’re intelligent and possess superior IT skills but uncertain prospects. Or, you prefer the idea of waging war without being shot at (which, in itself, could be considered proof of intelligence). Or, maybe you just like the idea of being paid to post bullshit. This is your time; the Homeland needs you.