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Russia Will Be Back in 2018, Cyber Experts Warn Congress

By Austin Mistretta 

With the 2018 midterms on the horizon, America’s electoral system needs to be ready to fend off the kind of online attacks that besieged it during the 2016 election, cybersecurity experts told the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing on Feb. 6. Their testimony made it clear that the threat of cyber warfare continues to grow, and that the U.S. will need to take innovative measures to protect itself.

Every passing day, adversaries abroad are increasing their efforts to “meddle with our elections and compromise our political infrastructure,” Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project, warned the committee.

“There is every indication that foreign governments will try to sow confusion and chaos ahead of and during the next election.”

In 2016, hackers and trolls successfully spread massive quantities of gross misinformation — i.e. fake news — throughout social media, distorting political debate and the democratic process. These hackers also tried to infiltrate voter rolls in several battleground states; according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), some of these attempts succeeded, although there is no known proof of actual vote tampering.

DHS is among the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, which unanimously concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in an effort to boost Donald Trump’s chances of winning while discrediting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

During the last U.S. presidential election, foreign agents — 13 of whom were recently indicted for their actions by special prosecuter Robert Mueller — spread massive quantities of fake news through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. (Photo: Pixabay / Robinraj Premchand)

Despite Trump’s repeated dismissal of claims that Russia meddled in the election, America’s intelligence community maintains that the Kremlin is likely to target future election cycles. Both CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sounded similar alarms in recent weeks.

Given the apparent inevitability of a Russian return, then, the question becomes: What to do about it? Christopher Painter, the former lead cyber diplomat at the State Department, offered his thoughts on the matter during the Hill hearing. First and foremost, he said, America needs to act boldly and creatively to defend against online enemies. In large part, that means ramping up multilateral engagement with strategic partners and allies.

“The need for diplomacy, working in conjunction with other instruments of our national power, is clear,” he said. “Because cyberspace threats are almost always international, as is the technology itself, an unprecedented level of international coordination, engagement and cooperation is required both to counter those threats and embrace and drive the social and economic opportunities that cyberspace offers for the future.”

Christopher Painter, former top cyber diplomat at the State Department, speaks to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Photo: Austin Mistretta)

Few people know more about that process than Painter. For six years, he served as the State Department’s cyber coordinator, spearheading diplomatic efforts geared toward the containment of cyber threats at the international level. He left the department in 2017 and is currently the head of the Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) outlined a strategic vision similar to Painter’s, emphasizing that “it’s our diplomats who work with our allies and partners to develop a common response to these threats while engaging our adversaries.”

“Cyber threats have real world impact,” he added. “In 2015, Chinese hackers stole the personnel files of 20 million current and former federal employees in a massive data breach. Last year, North Korean hackers crippled hospitals in the U.K. and halted international shipping in India. Russia exploits cyberspace to attack its neighbors, including Estonia and Ukraine, and to attempt to undermine Western democracies – including the United States.”

Royce said that while the military plays a key role in thwarting such attacks, “the importance of the State Department’s work cannot be understated.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) agreed, saying that “we need to engage with friendly governments facing the same threats” to “push back” against hostile forces operating online.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). (Photo: Austin Mistretta)

Last September, Royce and Engel backed a bill called the Cyber Diplomacy Act, which passed in the House this January and is due for a vote in the Senate. One of the bill’s key provisions would create an Office of Cyber Issues at the State Department — effectively a reincarnation of Painter’s former office, which was shuttered shortly after his departure as part of Tillerson’s effort to restructure and streamline the department.

The Cyber Diplomacy Act would also make the head of the Office of Cyber Issues a formal ambassadorial post.

At a time when the state of American diplomacy appears to be growing increasingly tenuous, equipping the State Department with these kinds of tools could be pivotal. America must work with its like-minded allies to protect its institutions — and, in a sense, democracy itself — from those that use would use the free and open internet to undermine them.

Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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