The French presidential elections are now behind us; Macron won. Not only did Emmanuel Macron apparently play his political cards right in defeating his opponent, Marine Le Pen, but the young head of state played a foxy hand of information war as well. On the night of May 5th, down to the wire before voting time, the servers for Macron’s campaign were hacked and some nine gigabytes of campaign emails and documents from Macron’s political movement “En Marche!” got dumped onto pastebin.
But all was not as it seemed; the document dump included lots of fake data, designed to send the hackers the impossible task of shoveling through it trying to test what’s real and false. There simply wasn’t time before the last polls closed on the election. As Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s digital team, remarked, “You can flood these [phishing] addresses with multiple passwords and log-ins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out.” Touche, indeed!
This story brings a more enduring problem to the fore: It appears, allegedly, the hackers were Russian, and the motive was to sway the election in favor of the Russian preferred candidate Le Pen. Moreover, Russia is also alleged to have pulled the same stunt on last year’s US presidential election, favoring Donald Trump for president over Hillary Clinton. This is the official opinion of US intelligence agencies, with an investigation pending, so it seems at least the people who get paid to find out these things think the Russians did it.
And wait, there’s even more. Now Germany is coming forward, where Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s intelligence agency, is also accusing the Russians of hacking their country’s parliament server, with an eye towards swaying German elections next September.
Russian president Vladimir Putin denies the whole lot, of course. But that’s getting to be a pretty incredible claim when three independent nations are saying you did it.
Is all this true? Is no democracy safe? And if Russia really is waging a campaign against other countries to manipulate their elections, what could possibly possess them to do such a thing?
Russia has always prided itself on its achievements in science, preferring to win battles with its brains. Russia was first in space with Sputnik and first to put a man in space with Yuri Gagarin. The Cold War was a long period of an arms race with technology at its forefront. Whether as the Soviet Union or as the new Russian Federation, Russia has been headstrong about its science and technology, while at the same time being less concerned about press freedom and more appreciative of the usefulness of propaganda, and the usefulness of strong internal and international security.
But there’s also something a bit more fanatical lurking under Russia’s collective psyche, an old idea called “Cosmism.” Cosmism is a philosophical and cultural movement that formed in the early 20th century. It is comparable to the United States idea of “Manifest Destiny,” with a tinge of transhumanism. In Russia’s romantic vision, the universal proletariat will stride forth from the Earth to conquer planets and stars, progressing ever onward with not just the hammer and sickle, but the test tube and microscope as well. Here is a fascinating and mind-bending documentary on Cosmism, and its remnant believers today:
While we can’t say for sure that Putin is a Cosmism adherent, his actions definitely do show that he yearns for the time when Russia cradles the world in its palm. The Russian Empire (1721-1917) was once the third-largest empire on Earth in terms of land mass, trailing behind the British and Mongol empires. Russia is today a huge land mass with over eleven centuries of history under its belt and memories of the empire it was building and its achievements on the world stage still commemorated in monuments and plaques and books throughout its nation.
Is it so difficult to imagine that Putin has ambitions towards expanding the border a bit? Putin today tackles new conquests in the Ukraine and Syria, while being fettered by economic sanctions from the US, UK, and EU all tying him down. Flipping elections in countries around the world has the obvious goal of getting some of those sanctions lifted. If we may be permitted to poetic expression, the Bear is restless.
Great, Now What Do We Do?
Well, just about every democracy on the planet right now owes itself and the world to be vigilant in protecting its government data, and that extends to candidates for elected office, their campaign network, and independent political bodies such as PACs and think-tanks. Just a bit of a security-focused operating system together with some Triple DES or at least some simple RSA encryption goes a long way. Ensuring a campaign’s staff is well-trained in good data hygiene will help, as many times a security breach is down to a careless laptop left behind to be stolen.
But there’s much more to international information wars that can’t be answered by technology alone. Russian cyberwar tactics include sockpuppetry to spread propaganda, astroturfing, web brigades, and other forms of cyber-mob influence. What they cannot defeat with a hack, they can attack by throwing hundreds of monkeys at keyboards to post carefully scripted misinformation.
We at last have our cyberpunk future, where wars are fought, Matrix-style, at the interface between machine and mind. But our collective geeky thrill at this advent of cyberwarfare may be short-lived, if it turns out we’re not very good at it. Russia, after all, has geeks too.