Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has been a menace on the world stage. And our country remains a top Kremlin target.
It has been roughly a week since we first learned of the unprecedented cyber breach against the U.S. government by attacking a software known as SolarWinds. There is still a lot we do not know about the attack that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency says has been ongoing as early as March, but all signs point to Russia as the culprit.
Without having all the details, we can easily imagine what sensitive intelligence and data the Kremlin was able to gain via its at least nine months of unfettered access based on the ever-expanding list of victims. As of Friday, that list included the departments of Energy, Treasury, Homeland Security, State, Commerce and Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health.
Malicious strategy to undermine US
In a critical alert issued Thursday, CISA painted an equally bleak picture about the national security implications of the breach carried out by an actor it called “patient, well-resourced, and focused.” The agency said the attack was sophisticated, hard to detect, and will be “highly complex and challenging” to undo, suggesting we will be feeling the effects of this operation for years to come.
Western governments have taken turns every few years pushing for a new and very much one-sided “Russian reset.” The goal has been to encourage better behavior by the Kremlin, but these “resets” have served as little more than diplomatic and ultimately naive olive branches that governments eventually abandon.
Consequently, Russia continues to push the envelope, and will do so until we take decisive action. A mere slap on the wrist won’t cut it anymore. President-elect Joe Biden issued a statement saying as much, though he did not mention Russia. He promised that his administration would have a strong response to these malicious attacks on our country.
We can expect the Kremlin will use its findings from the breach and access to better position itself globally and to threaten our national security. We also know that Russian intelligence is adept at deploying hack and leak operations. That was never more clear than when Russia hacked Democratic National Committee servers and leaked emails ahead of the 2016 election in an operation to target voters and undermine confidence in the election.
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A similar strategy likely will play out in the coming years with the Kremlin selectively deploying information to continue its strategy of undermining our democracy. After all, the current breach comes on the heels of a divisive presidential election in which approximately half of the U.S. population is convinced there was widespread voter fraud, despite a complete lack of evidence. Disinformation and misinformation around the election and its results ran rampant online, though largely domestically generated, shaking our country’s collective faith in our voting systems.
Already, we are living in a tinderbox of false information that does not need any more fuel. That’s precisely what this breach is.
Breeding ground of disinformation
It is a breeding ground for the quickly evolving world of information warfare. The American people have been fed a steady diet of false information for so long that they have become the main spreaders of this information, just looking for the right salacious conspiracy theory or claim that fits their bias.
We are also likely to see other nefarious online actors attempting to capitalize on this moment to peddle unverified information around the breach and deploy new conspiracy theories that exploit very real security concerns felt by the American people. And the sad part is, our adversaries don’t even have to do the heavy lifting. We’ve already shown that we’ll spread disinformation and misinformation for them.
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More than that, we continue to create new avenues for destructive disinformation campaigns that fail to address the many societal and technical issues created by the first generation of social networks. In the drive toward innovation, we can’t turn a blind eye to these problems, for they are what allow dangerous false information to take root and spread rapidly. We must focus less on gaining clicks for misleading headlines and more on protecting the public square.
We need to be prepared for an intense wave of false information that will use this breach to further increase the ambiguity of this cybersecurity incident. While we wait for more information around the breach, look to trusted sources for updates. Do not spread unverified information.
The threat posed by disinformation will not go away on its own. Need evidence? Look to the lies being spread about voter fraud or the COVID-19 vaccine. War has been declared on the truth. Public and private entities must join together to fight for it.
Cindy L. Otis, a disinformation expert and former CIA analyst, is vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.” Follow her on Twitter: @CindyOtis_
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia hack will fuel lies, conspiracies and national security fears