As information security professionals, our goal is to protect information against attacks on confidentiality, integrity and availability. Today, I want to talk about integrity of information, but more on a societal level than a technical level.
In order to have a civil society, we don’t need to agree on everything – there is room for a diversity of opinions and ideas. However, in order to discuss those opinions and ideas in a civil, rational manner, we do need to agree on some very basic axioms, most importantly the definition of the words “fact” and “truth.” Without the ability to differentiate between what is true and factual and what is not, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion. When we can’t have reasoned discussion, we make bad decisions and/or turn on each other, paralyzing our ability to make decisions and meet challenges. That is why undermining a society’s ability to know what is factual/true and what is not is such an effective weapon.
Today, the most effective user of this weapon is Russia. They have decades of experience in using disinformation (or as they call it “active measures”) to play the long game of destabilizing their adversaries by exploiting divisions in society. We are Russia’s main adversary and, as much as many people in the US don’t want to admit it, we are losing a war with them that began decades ago.
Russia is winning this war and the US (and its allies) are losing – badly. They are turning US invented innovation (the Internet and Social Media) to their advantage and are actively trying to divide us from our allies and sow deep divisions between Americans. And we are not only letting them do this, but are actively helping them achieve their long term aims – and we have been doing so for decades. Yes, Donald Trump is the epitome of the “useful idiot” that the Russians rely on to spread disinformation, but every modern US president (except Ronald Reagan) has played a role in getting us to the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves.
I urge you to take the time to watch the New York Times’ Operation Infektion videos, which explain the background of Soviet and then Russian disinformation efforts from the 1980s to the present day.
So what do we do?
The current leadership of the US seems either hostile to or ill equipped to taking action against this threat; we need to vote people into office who either have a basic understanding of the underlying issues and technology, or who will take counsel from those who do.
We need to look to the experiences of other targets of Russian disinformation (such as the Baltic States and Ukraine) and learn from them.
We need to hold technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to account. We have placed some of the most powerful communications tools and weapons mankind has ever known into the hands of Silicon Valley tech bros whose only motivation is profit and whose understanding of civil society and their place in it would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous.
If we want to protect the integrity of information (the important information that drives society’s decisions), we need to realize that we are already in a war, we are losing that war, and we need to stand up and fight.