Saturday, September 17, 2016
When a Hack is Worse than a Bad Cough
Let’s start with a couple of quotes from members of the United States Senate, reacting to the latest hack of former Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s emails: “On Capitol Hill, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said the news of Mr. Powell’s hacked emails had him thinking that Senator Chuck Schumer’s never-ending use of an old-fashioned flip phone ‘makes more sense than ever.’
“‘I think more and more people are realizing that there isn’t a thing you can say in an email that isn’t likely to be hackable or discoverable at some later point,’ Mr. Durbin said, lamenting his own complacency.
“Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, shrugged off the news. ‘I haven’t worried about an email being hacked since I’ve never sent one,’ Mr. Graham said. ‘I’m, like, ahead of my time.’” New York Times, September 15th.
Even minor hacking from external sources, like the recent allegation of possible Russian intrusions into American political party servers and even into electronic voting machines, sent shivers through local election officials as well as the highest reaches of Homeland Security. With clear statements that this election is “rigged” from Donald Trump, should Trump lose, these “threats” – even without an actual mainstream penetration of these devices during an actual election – are more than enough to ignite Trump supporters to refuse to acknowledge Hillary Clinton as president, to file legal actions to tie up the election for as long as possible and conceivably to take matters – even guns – into their own hand to correct the “big rig.”
How easy is it to hack into these election systems? “Far from Washington, hackers descended on Las Vegas [in August] to show off their party tricks at Black Hat, the annual conference that puts security on the frontlines. They hacked cars, ATMs and mobile devices. This year, there was a new addition: a simulated version of a hackable electronic voting machine, assembled by security firm Symantec.” Money.CNN.com, August 9th.
What is painfully apparent is the impact of technology on the present and future of American politics. What makes this even more toxic is the ability of hackers to extract embarrassing, humiliating or even uncontroversial quotes and then to alter the words to suit their purposes and then present the resultant “email statements” to the general public as truth. There’s no winning here. The general public appears to believe just about anything that is leaked as the truth… unless it contradicts their passionate belief in the purported speaker.
Powell has been a relatively minor figure, sitting on the sidelines, in this current election cycle. It is only this latest hack, combined with sparing between him and HRC over his purported advice/opinion over private email accounts, that has moved him to the fore in the eyes of the general public. And we do seem to love unveiling secrets and private conversations; we are a nation where serious dramatic television is all about ferreting out private secrets with nasty overtones. A rising fear over possible/potential leaked private matters is spreading like wildfire.
“A panicked network anchor went home and deleted his entire personal Gmail account. A Democratic senator began rethinking the virtues of a flip phone. And a former national security official gave silent thanks that he is now living on the West Coast.
“The digital queasiness has settled heavily on the nation’s capital and its secretive political combatants this week as yet another victim, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, fell prey to the embarrassment of seeing his personal musings distributed on the internet and highlighted in news reports.
“‘There but for the grace of God go all of us,’ said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman for President Obama who now works in San Francisco. He said thinking about his own email exchanges in Washington made him cringe, even now.
“‘Sometimes we’re snarky, sometimes we are rude,’ Mr. Vietor said, recalling a few such moments during his time at the White House. “The volume of hacking is a moment we all have to do a little soul searching.”
“The Powell hack, which may have been conducted by a group with ties to the Russian government, echoed the awkwardness of previous leaks of emails from Democratic National Committee officials and the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan. The messages exposed this week revealed that Mr. Powell considered Donald J. Trump a ‘national disgrace,’ Hillary Clinton ‘greedy’ and former Vice President Dick Cheney an ‘idiot.’” NY Times. Good television. Bad politics.
For those in the private sector, there is also the constant threat, from illicit hacks looking for commercial advantage or from litigants seeking to build their case with full access to email exchanges, of having nasty information paraded before these “others.” Corporations have legal obligations to maintain emails intact. Individuals working for companies often forget and email and text away, to the potential embarrassment of all concerned. And lawyers are feasting. Some of these leaks – like the infamous Panama Papers – have opened the doors to massive corruption and money laundering, seemingly a major value to the nations impacted. But the ramifications to the proper functioning of our political processes are seriously negative.
It’s beyond the scope of today’s blog to discuss the overall fading of privacy from modern society, as cookies and simple tracking have generated information about each and every one of us that used to be intensely private. But digital hacking is changing our political processes directly, as noted above, and indirectly by deterring too many of our nation’s “best and brightest” from careers in the political arena; they simply do not want to take the obvious risks of becoming targets of malevolent hackers. Without some serious consequences to those who hack and those who use hacked information, a massive undertaking given the ease of relative anonymity in the ether, it will only get worse. Possibly unmanageably worse.
I’m Peter Dekom, and after the discomfort or the amusement of these private revelations has passed, we have some very serious questions that address the very survival of the democratic election process… and those who are increasingly able to disrupt its underlying mission… and credibility.