Let's say you despise Western democracy. Democracy, in all its trappings, free elections, town halls, endless debates about the proper role of government. Too messy, too unpredictable, too constraining for your taste. And the way these democracies band together and lecture everyone else about individual rights and freedoms — it gets under your skin.
So what to do about it? You can call out the hypocrisy and failures of Western democracies and explain how your way is better, but that's never really worked for you. What if you could get the people whose support is the very foundation of these democracies to start questioning the system? Make the idea occur in their own minds that democracy and its institutions are failing them, their elite are corrupt puppet masters and the country they knew is in free fall. To do that, you'll need to infiltrate the information spheres of these democracies. You'll need to turn their most powerful asset — an open mind — into their greatest vulnerability. You'll need people to question the truth.
Now, you'll be familiar of hacking and leaks that happened in 2016. One was the Democratic National Committee's networks, and the personal email accounts of its staff, later released on WikiLeaks. After that, various online personas, like a supposed Romanian cybercriminal who didn't speak Romanian, aggressively pushed news of these leaks to journalists. The media took the bait. They were consumed by how much the DNC hated Bernie. At the time, it was that narrative that far outshined the news that a group of Russian government sponsored hackers who we called "Advanced Persistent Threat 28," or "APT28" for short, was carrying out these operations against the US.
And there was no shortage of evidence. This group of Russian government hackers hadn't just appeared out of nowhere in 2016. We had started tracking this group back in 2014. And the tools that APT28 used to compromise its victims' networks demonstrated a thoughtful, well-resourced effort that had taken place for now over a decade in Moscow's time zone from about 9 am to 6 pm. APT28 loved to prey on the emails and contacts of journalists in Chechnya, the Georgian government, eastern European defense attachés — all targets with an undeniable interest to the Russian government.
We weren't the only ones onto this. Governments, research teams across the world, were coming to similar conclusions and observing the same types of operations. But what Russia was doing in 2016 went far beyond espionage. The DNC hack was just one of many where stolen data was posted online accompanied by a sensational narrative, then amplified in social media for lightning-speed adoption by the media. This didn't ring the alarm bells that a nation-state was trying to interfere with the credibility of another's internal affairs.
So why, collectively, did we not see this coming? Why did it take months before Americans understood that they were under a state-sponsored information attack? The easy answer is politics. The Obama Administration was caught in a perfect catch-22. By raising the specter that the Russian government was interfering in the US presidential campaign, the Administration risked appearing to meddle in the campaign itself. But the better answer, I think, is that the US and the West were utterly unequipped to recognize and respond to a modern information operation, despite the fact that the US had wielded information with devastating success in an era not so long ago.
Look, so while the US and the West spent the last 20 years caught up in cybersecurity — what networks to harden, which infrastructure to deem critical, how to set up armies of cyber warriors and cyber commands — Russia was thinking in far more consequential terms. Before the first iPhone even hit the shelf, the Russian government understood the risks and the opportunity that technology provided and the inter-communication and instant communication it provided us.
As our realities are increasingly based on the information that we're consuming at the palm of our hand and from the news feeds that we're scanning and the hashtags and stories that we see trending, the Russian government was the first to recognize how this evolution had turned your mind into the most exploitable device on the planet. And your mind is particularly exploitable if you're accustomed to an unfettered flow of information, now increasingly curated to your own tastes. This panorama of information that's so interesting to you gives a state, or anyone for that matter, a perfect back door into your mind.
It's this new brand of state-sponsored information operations that can be that much more successful, more insidious, and harder for the target audience — that includes the media — to decipher and characterize. If you can get a hashtag trending on Twitter, or chum the waters with fake news directed to audiences primed to receive it, or drive journalists to dissect terabytes of email for a cent of impropriety — all tactics used in Russian operations — then you've got a shot at effectively camouflaging your operations in the mind of your target. This is what Russia's long called "reflexive control." It's the ability to use information on someone else so that they make a decision on their own accord that's favorable to you. This is nation-state-grade image control and perception management, and it's conducted by any means, with any tools, network-based or otherwise, that will achieve it.
Take this for another example. In early February 2014, a few weeks before Russia would invade Crimea, a phone call is posted on YouTube. In it, there's two US diplomats. They sound like they're playing kingmaker in Ukraine, and worse, they curse the EU for its lack of speed and leadership in resolving the crisis. The media covers the phone call, and then the ensuing diplomatic backlash leaves Washington and Europe reeling. And it creates a fissured response and a feckless attitude towards Russia's land grab in Ukraine. Mission accomplished.
So while hacked phone calls and emails and networks keep grabbing the headlines, the real operations are the ones that are influencing the decisions you make and the opinions you hold, all in the service of a nation-state's strategic interest. This is power in the information age. And this information is all that much more seductive, all that much easier to take at face value and pass on, when it's authentic. Who's not interested in the truth that's presented in phone calls and emails that were never intended for public consumption? But how meaningful is that truth if you don't know why it's being revealed to you?
We must recognize that this place where we're increasingly living, which we've quaintly termed "cyberspace," isn't defined by ones and zeroes, but by information and the people behind it. This is far more than a network of computers and devices. This is a network composed of minds interacting with computers and devices.
And for this network, there's no encryption, there's no firewall, no two-factor authentication, no password complex enough to protect you. What you have for defense is far stronger, it's more adaptable, it's always running the latest version. It's the ability to think critically: call out falsehood, press for the facts. And above all, you must have the courage to unflinchingly pursue the truth.