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An information Cold War

The investiture of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, coupled with the controversial report by top American intelligence and security agencies presenting explosive revelations about Russian interventions in the American presidential election, arguably represents the start of a new kind of Cold War.

This is Cold War 2.0, a so-called Information Cold War, based upon the use of information, the Internet, and information communication technologies. It is unfolding online, featuring extensive and intricate cyber attacks, cyber espionage, surveillance, hacking, trolling, and disinformation campaigns.

It is particularly nefarious due to its intimate reach into both the inner workings of many institutions and our personal lives. While it is taking place in cyberspace, it is having actual impacts on the real world as it infiltrates our everyday realities, specifically through our use of and growing dependence on information communication technologies and services.

According to Tomer Weingarten, the co-founder and CEO of the cyber security firm Sentinel One: “Governments with aggressive cyber initiatives have unprecedented, direct power over the citizens of other nations. Nations like Russia, China, and the US likely already have a stronghold on some aspect of each other’s critical infrastructure. This could mean energy grids and oil plants, or it could mean nuclear power facilities.”

It also means infiltration into social media and e-mail accounts of politicians, officials, and ordinary citizens.

This Information Cold War, in other words, is not happening in clandestine encounters in obscure government offices, or more sensationally in far-fetched James Bond action sequences, but instead in our homes, offices, and online profiles.

It is appearing as fake news, disinformation, and trolling on our personal Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter accounts. It is covertly monitoring, and simultaneously attacking, our databases, cloud computing services, and other digital information assets. It is affecting democratic processes and decisions.

It is using information to target, not some remote political policy or abstract ideology, but our everyday lives. Indeed, this Information Cold War is arguably more dramatic than the previous one because now there exist the cyber tools to infiltrate, interfere, and intervene in our lived reality.

Perhaps the most troubling development in this Information Cold War is the revelations of alleged Russian interference in the recent American presidential elections. According to the CIA, FBI, and the National Security Agency, the Kremlin allegedly played an active role in spreading disinformation about the American presidential candidates and other politicians across the Internet.

It is alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government conducted, and continue to engage in, an information war against the United States in order to undermine its political institutions, media organisations, politicians, and public discourse.

It outlines sophisticated Russian cyber attacks, hacking, and other dark activities aimed at a diverse array of American targets including Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff, the Democratic Party, government departments at all levels, electoral boards, as well as banks, corporations, and universities.

We cannot have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the Wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in unhealthy competition

Most damningly, this report states that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him”. The report claims, in other words, that the Kremlin orchestrated a complicated multipart information attack aiming to denigrate Clinton and assist in a Trump triumph.

Although it was done on computers, networks, and servers far from the US, it had actual impact in the US itself. Indeed, this alleged Russian interference struck at the very core of American democracy.

As political scientist PW Singer states: “There are many threats in cyberspace, from criminals stealing personal information to governments (like China) that have broken into government databases. But no single threat has brought these acts together in the wide-ranging and brazen manner of Russia, targeting not just individuals and organisations, but the fabric of democracy itself.”

Further, these activities are dangerous not only because of their impact but also because of how they can serve as an instructive roadmap for others in this Information Cold War.

While the new US President disregards these allegations, the outgoing President worries of a growing Cold War-style “cyber arms race” with Russia. In September 2016, then President Barack Obama acknowledged that the US has “had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past” and that “we’re moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities” to reach directly into the political, economic, social, and personal spheres of other states.

He urged that cyberspace not be transformed into a contested conflict zone, arguing that the goal of all should be “not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past. What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the Wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in unhealthy competition or conflict through these means”.

He therefore called upon Russia and other international actors to “act responsibly and start instituting norms” to avoid a Cold War-style escalation of information warfare.

There are various steps that can be taken to address and hopefully avert this new Cold War. Political scientist Ivan Krastev presents one possible overarching strategy based on multipronged resilience. Krastev argues that, first, resilience can be enforced by implementing a “deterrence by denial” policy and protocol for digital devices, services, and infrastructures.

Deterrence by denial would help make cyber attacks less possible and desirable. This kind of resilience also “has the added bonus of being useful against any attacker, not just Russia”.

Second, resilience can be fostered by better information coordination between government and security institutions, not only within countries, but between them. In the US, for example, this could mean reconvening the Cold War-era Active Measures Working Group, which was an interagency effort devoted to debunking Soviet propaganda.

Krastev argues that information coordination should extend beyond national borders; for instance, “it should also work in cohesion with our NATO allies to help identify and counter Russia’s campaigns. This will also help in debunking the individuals and outlets who have chosen to become either willing partners or ‘useful idiots’ for foreign government propaganda.”

Third, resilience can be increased by the active participation of information technology companies. These tech companies need to play greater roles in monitoring and stopping the manipulation of their networks and services by nefarious actors, whether they be cyber criminals, extremists, or governments.

Fourth, resilience can be buttressed by better oversight from traditional and mainstream media companies. These media companies need to play greater roles in debunking and preventing the spread of fake news and disinformation that were so prevalent in the recent US presidential election. Recently, The New York Times public editor acknowledged that by indulging in such stories the paper had functioned as “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence”.

This Information Cold War must be treated seriously. Our institutions, infrastructures, and information must be made more resilient. If not, its consequences could be dire. Indeed, as Tomer Weingarten warns, “if government organisations don’t work fast to update critical infrastructure security tools and policies, there’s a significant chance we’ll be facing physical battles as the result of a cold war” waged in the information realm.

Marc Kosciejew is a lecturer at the University of Malta.

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