As Russians prepare for 2020, scrutiny of Facebook, social media companies may be misplaced

As Russians prepare for 2020, scrutiny of Facebook, social media companies may be misplaced

Winston Churchill’s gift of eloquence helped carry England through World War II, through the darkest times. After the Battle of El Alamein, the first British victory of the war, Churchill gave cautionary advice to the military and public: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

This same advice applies with respect to Mueller Report and Russian influence operations. This isn’t the end of Russian influence attempts. It’s not even the beginning of the end. And, I suspect history will teach us in this case, it’s not even the end of the beginning.

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Russia has been plying their intelligence trade for over 100 years, since the creation of the Cheka in World War I. The Cheka was originally designed to protect the communist government. Over time it morphed into the GPU, the notorious NKVD and later the KGB.

Regardless of the current form in the FSB and SVR, the tactics and objectives of influence have remained consistent. Only the tools have changed. Originally it was pen, paper and newsprint. Now it is clicks, Facebook posts, Tweets and political ads.

Many think Facebook should have known, should have put a stop to it, but it was never a fair fight.

A look at some numbers offers perspective:

  • $59.4 billion dollars? The amount of money the U.S. spent on National Intelligence Programs in 2018.
  • $1 billion dollars? The amount of money American campaigns and interest groups spent on 2016 presidential campaign ads.
  • $100,000? The amount of money spent by the Internet Research Agency — the Russian troll farm — on Facebook ads in 2016.

Facebook opened up to the world in September 2006. They went public in 2012. Not even 14 years old when the Russians started using their platform. Yet, Facebook should have discovered an extensive and sophisticated influence operation that had escaped the attention of a $59.4 billion dollar intelligence program? And the FBI? And DHS? And NSA?

The entire time, our adversary was hiding in plain sight. All the FBI had to do was read the April 2, 2015 article from The Guardian, a British news site. The entire operation was laid out for the world.

“The nondescript building has been identified as the headquarters of Russia’s ‘troll army,’ where hundreds of paid bloggers work round the clock to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications…” 

“First thing in the morning, we’d come in, turn on a proxy server to hide our real location, and then read the technical tasks we had been sent.”

A review of pages 14 -36 of the Special Counsel’s report detailing the investigation into the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the “troll army,” shows no reference the article from The Guardian, an apparent admission that in spite of all the resources of the Intelligence Community, FBI, DOJ and DHS, the opportunity to expose the IRA’s activities and put a damper on their effectiveness was squandered.

Now the 2020 elections loom over the horizon, and if anyone thinks the Mueller report will provide a roadmap on how to stop influence in the next election they would be sadly mistaken. Russia has already evolved its tactics. And it isn’t about interference. It’s about influence. In this context, words mean things.

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Addressing influence operations is about policy. Interference, on the other hand, relies on our ability to create a resilient and defensible infrastructure to ward off cyberattacks. In an address at the Aspen Institute on July 18, 2018, Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Rosenstein10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall Why the presumption of innocence doesn't apply to Trump McCabe sues FBI, DOJ, blames Trump for his firing MORE talked about “malign influence,” saying it “refers to actions undertaken by a foreign government, often covertly, to influence people’s opinions and advance the foreign nation’s strategic objectives.” 

With respect to interference, in the same speech Rosenstein added “In 2016, foreign cyber intruders targeted election-related networks in as many as 21 states. There is no evidence that any foreign government ever succeeded in changing votes, but the risk is real. Moreover, even the possibility that manipulation may occur can cause citizens to question the integrity of elections.”

Influence operations seek to divide the country, but interference undermines trust in the voting system. Both words are politically charged and should be used with precision and care. The IRA operation wasn’t about interference. It was about “malign influence.” The influence operations included Guccifer 2.0, the DNC hack, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails, DCLeaks.com and more.

One of the key differences is that the FBI actually tried to warn the Democratic National Committee of a possible compromise of their network months before it was widely reported. By that time, the Russian hackers had been inside their systems for almost a year. Which begs the question, did the FBI warn anyone else?

According to an investigation done by the Washington Post, Facebook contacted the FBI in June 2016 with their suspicions about a possible espionage operation that was underway. But did the FBI already know and not share? They declined to comment for The Post.

What we do know is the FBI did have information on American citizens being targeted by Russian intelligence and said virtually nothing. An Associated Press investigation showed that the FBI knew for over a year “scores” of private emails of U.S. government officials were being  targeted. Out of 80 interviews conducted by the AP, only two persons got a heads up.

At this point, it should have been a forgone conclusion the FBI would at least visit Facebook. But they didn’t. No one from U.S. law enforcement or the intelligence community came by to even state the obvious. Even though the FBI and DHS specifically run a program designed to do just that called the Domestic Security Alliance Council.

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence visited Facebook in June 2017. He inquired about the use of Facebook tools to disseminate negative ads against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump takes aim at media after 'hereby' ordering US businesses out of China Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Taylor Swift says Trump is 'gaslighting the American public' MORE. Again, the Government wanted information.

During the visit, Facebook asked Warner for help. Specifically, about any Russian operations or “troll farms.” Instead of a two-way sharing of information that could help Facebook, all they got at the time was a busy signal. Detecting influence and preventing interference shouldn’t be a game of “gotcha” where forewarning is reserved for only one particular group or political party.

A better approach comes from someone who died in 1941, before there was the internet and social media. Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, may have had the perfect solution: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Time to shine a light on everything.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.