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Senator: On Cyberwarfare, Russia Has The U.S. “Behind The Eight Ball”

Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, thinks U.S. cyberdefense is stuck in the 20th century, while the Russians are way ahead.

Senator: On Cyberwarfare, Russia Has The U.S. “Behind The Eight Ball”
[Photo: Flickr user Senate Democrats]

The Russians have punched far beyond their weight when it comes to cyberwarfare, a prominent U.S. Senator said Saturday, and America isn’t keeping up.

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Speaking at the SXSW conference in Austin, Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, noted that Vladimir Putin’s government got “great bang for their dollars, or bang for their rubles” by exploiting vulnerabilities on social media during the 2016 presidential elections, and that it may be time for the U.S. to rethink its military budget.

“I come from one of the most pro-defense states,” Warner said, “but if you look at what we’re spending [on the military], $700 billion, the Russians are spending $68 billion.”

Warner said that Putin’s government has acknowledged that it can’t keep up with us militarily. But he added that it has managed to use cyberwarfare to sow divisiveness in the U.S. by using sophisticated techniques to spread disinformation. It uses small, targeted election advertising buys, and leaves the kind of obvious fingerprints on state election systems that could have been used to defend President Trump’s original claims that the 2016 election was “rigged.”

“If You Leave It To Washington, We’ll Probably Mess It Up”

Warner began his talk by stating forcefully that Russia had intervened in America’s 2016 elections; that the country had tried to “rattle the doors” of 21 states’ election systems; and that the way Russia exploited platforms like Facebook and Twitter showed “the dark underbelly of social media.”

As giant tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google become more mature, Warner argued, they may someday need to face legal liability for the kind of content that crosses their platforms–much like automakers were eventually held responsible for their products. “I think we’re going to have to have that kind of debate,” Warner said. “What responsibility do the content companies have for the content that passes over them?”

He noted that although federal law generally protects content companies from liability for what their customers do, it has changed over the years to force those firms to take action against things like child pornography or terrorism. Perhaps it’s time to hold them to account for enabling political meddling, he suggested.

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But even without changing those rules, he acknowledged that the government has to have the help of tech companies in trying to keep bad actors from leveraging their platforms. “We’re going to need their cooperation,” he said, “because if not, if you leave it to Washington, we’ll probably mess it up. It needs to be a collaborative process.”

Stuck in the 20th Century

Warner veered between being critical of the tech companies, to acknowledging the U.S. government being stuck in a 20th-century mentality about possible threats to our democracy from Russia before the last elections. He also alleged that while many on both sides of the aisle in Washington are ready to take firm steps to address potential future election meddling, President Trump’s apparent lack of interest in doing so is holding the government back from taking any meaningful action to prevent a repeat this fall of what happened in 2016.

As one of the sponsors of the Honest Ads Act, which would force online tech companies to disclose the source of all political advertising, Warner is hopeful that transparency in such areas will help. But he also knows full well that Russian-purchased election ads in 2016 amounted to a pittance when it came to that country’s overall use of social media to impact American voters. Russia’s ability to organically use Facebook and Twitter was a much bigger issue, he said.

Warner also worries that while some are trying to avoid a repeat of 2016 in this fall’s Congressional elections, Russia and others who might want to interfere may have already moved on to other methods. For example, he said he’s concerned about “Deep Faking,” a method of morphing someone’s face onto someone else’s body in photos or video. Plus, he said, he’d read a study that concluded that, “If you have more than 40 hours of recorded video” of someone, “you could have any words come out of my mouth, regardless” of the original sequence.

“We are behind the eight ball,” he said.

And it’s not just Russia. If the United States doesn’t take the lead on technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, there are plenty of companies in China that will build systems that are fully capable of exploiting our vulnerabilities. “I assure you,” he said, “China has a plan, and they are executing on the plan, and we fail to do [the same] at our peril,” Warner said.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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