Demystifying Foreign Election Interference

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a declassified report detailing efforts by foreign actors to influence and interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The key finding of the report: Russia sought to undermine confidence in our democratic processes to support then President Donald J. Trump. Iran launched similar efforts but to diminish Trump’s chances of getting reelected. And China stayed out of it altogether.  

(Source: ODNI)

Make sure to read the full declassified report titled Intelligence Community Assessment of Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections releasedby the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at https://www.odni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2192-intelligence-community-assessment-on-foreign-threats-to-the-2020-u-s-federal-elections

Background

On September 12, 2018 then President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13848 to address foreign interference in U.S. elections. In essence, it authorizes an interagency review to determine whether an interference has occurred. In the event of foreign interference in a U.S. election the directive orders to create an impact report to trigger sanctions against (1) foreign individuals and (2) nation states. A comprehensive breakdown of the directive including the process of imposing sanctions can be found here. I will only focus on the findings of the interagency review laid out in the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) pursuant to EO 13848 (1)(a). The ICA is limited to intelligence reporting and other information available as of December 31, 2020.

Findings

The former President touted American voters before his own election in 2016, during his presidency and beyond the 2020 presidential elections with unsubstantiated claims of foreign election interference that would disadvantage his reelection chances. In Trump’s mind, China sought to undermine his chances to be reelected to office while he downplayed the role of Russia or Iran. The recently released ICA directly contradicts Trump’s claims. Here’s the summary per country:

Russia

  • Russia conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections authorized by Vladimir Putin
  • Russia supported then incumbent Donald J. Trump and aimed to undermine confidence in then candidate Joseph R. Biden
  • Russia attempted to exploit socio-political divisions through spreading polarized narratives without leveraging persistent cyber efforts against critical election infrastructure

The ICA finds a theme in Russian intelligence officials pushing misinformation about President Biden through U.S. media organizations, officials and prominent individuals. Such influence operations follow basic money laundering structures: (1) creation and dissemination of a false and misleading narrative, (2) conceal its source through layering in multiple media outlets involving independent (unaware) actors, and (3) integrating the damning narrative into the nation states official communication after the fact. A recurring theme was the false claim of corrupt ties between President Biden and Ukraine. These began spreading as early as 2014. 

Russian attempts to sow discord among the American people took place through narratives that amplified misinformation about the election process and its systems, e.g. undermining the integrity of mail-in ballots or highlighting technical failures and exceptions of misconduct. In a broader sense, topics around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship were exploited to polarize the affected groups. While these efforts required Russia’s cyber offensive units to take action, the actual evidence for a persistent cyber influence operation was not conclusive. The ICA categorized Russian actions as general intelligence gathering to inform Russian foreign policy rather than specifically targeting critical election infrastructure.

Iran

  • Iran conducted influence operations targeting the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections likely authorized by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
  • Unlike Russia, Iran did not support either candidate but aimed to undermine confidence in then incumbent Donald J. Trump
  • Iran did not interfere in the 2020 presidential elections as defined as activities targeting technical aspects of the election

The ICA finds Iran leveraged similar influence tactics as Russia targeting the integrity of the election process presumably in an effort to steer the public’s attention away from Iran and towards domestic issues around pandemic related lockdown measures or racial injustice or conservative censorship. However, Iran relied more notably on cyber-enabled offensive operations. These included aggressive spoofing emails disguised as to be sent from the Proud Boys group to intimidate liberal and left-leaning voters. Spear phishing emails sent to former and current officials aimed to gain impactful information and access to critical infrastructure. A high volume of inauthentic social media accounts was used to create divisive political narratives. Some of these accounts dated back to 2012.     

China

  • China did not conduct influence operations or efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential elections

The ICA finds China did not actively interfere in the 2020 presidential elections. While the rationale in their assessment is largely based on political reasoning and foreign policy objectives, the report provides no data points for me to evaluate. The report does not offer insights into the role of Chinese Technology platforms repeatedly targeted by the former President. A minority view by the National Intelligence Office for Cyber (NIO) holds the opinion that China did deploy some cyber offensive operations to counter anti-Chinese policies. Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe leads this minority view expressed in a scathing memorandum that concludes the ICA fell short in their analysis with regard to China.

Recommendations

The ICA offers several insights into a long, strenuous election cycle. Its sober findings help to reformulate U.S. foreign policy and redefine domestic policy objectives. While this report is unable to detail all available intelligence and other information it offers some solace to shape future policies. For example:

  1. Cybersecurity – increased efforts to update critical election infrastructure has probably played a key role in the decreased efforts around cyber offensive operations. Government and private actors must continue to focus on cybersecurity, practise cyber hygiene and conduct digital audits to improve cyber education
  2. Media Literacy – increased efforts to educate the public about political processes. This includes private actors to educate their users about potential abuse on their platforms. Continuing programs to depolarize ideologically-charged groups through empathy and regulation is a cornerstone for a more perfect union

Additional and more detailed recommendations to improve the resilience of American elections and democratic processes can be found in the Joint Report of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security on Foreign Interference Targeting Election Infrastructure or Political Organization, Campaign, or Candidate Infrastructure Related to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections

The Universe, Explained By Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I think about the universe, distant galaxies and the concept of time I feel easily overwhelmed. The cosmos seems detached from my earthly, daily life with my meaningless human problems. To understand it seems to require complex mathematics and in-depth proficiency in advanced physics. This often leads to a feeling of intimidation. Something observed throughout human history. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a master of translating the comprehensive and complex theories of astrophysics into layman’s terms. He’s quite the opposite of being intimidated when it comes to the universe. With his concise and intriguing book Astrophysics For People In A Hurry he offers an in-route for us mere mortals to learn more about the universe and by extension – us. 

I generally don’t like hardcover editions but this one is in a perfect size to page ratio, which only increased my excitement. Appropriate reader’s break points are strategically placed every other twenty pages. This creates a welcoming reader’s feel of brevity of a book that is already edited down to just 208 pages. Rest assured though Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers on his reputation to explain the science of the universe as a human endeavor: the first few chapters cover the origins of our story. Explaining the big bang theory that is not a TV show with an historic account enriched with analogies such as

“we are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”

Against this backdrop, Neil deGrasse Tyson continues to detail the concepts of orbiting planets, which form galaxies. Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy. Examining galaxy clusters with basic laws of physics revealed dark matter “which makes no assertion that anything is missing, yet nonetheless implies that some new kind of matter exists, waiting to be discovered.” And if planets, galaxies, multiverses and dark matter aren’t blowing your mind already then dark energy might just get you there. Dark energy is presumably “a quantum effect where the vacuum of space, instead of being empty, actually seethes with particles and their antimatter counterparts. They pop in and out of existence in pairs, and don’t last long enough to be measured.”

Next, Neil deGrasse Tyson does us all a favor by refreshing our memory of the periodic table in a short chemistry of the universe breakdown. It’s remarkable that I could unclutter some semblance of understanding throughout this section having loathed chemistry class in high school. Did you know that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the second largest consumer of helium second only to the U.S. military? Or that uranium, neptunium and plutonium all follow one another in the periodic table and all lend their names to later discovered planets? Except for Pluto, of course, who was added as a planet under false pretenses assuming it’d be equal in size and mass to our earth (It isn’t. And Pluto is not a planet.) In his concluding remarks, Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates the humbling effects of cosmology on our existence as we humans are a mere smudge on the hourglass of time. He offers a philosophical way forward to set aside human conflict for our drive to explore and grow our minds.

Astrophysics For People In A Hurry is a page-turner, but not as easy as one would hope. Some preexisting knowledge will help to follow the astrophysics theories presented in this book. Albeit some theories were over my head anyway. Nonetheless, the message of this book is not so much about feeling overwhelmed and intimidated but an openness to learning, exploring and to embrace the unknown. Neil deGrasse Tyson does well communicate that we’re not just part of this universe, but its core ingredients are within us. We are the universe. 

I’ll leave you with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s eloquent yet mind-boggling answer to the question: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” 

One Flew Over The Bitcoin Mine

Rarely have I found myself more confused about technology than after reading George Gilder’s “Life After Google – The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy.” A book, supposedly, on the very technology of big data and the blockchain.

In twenty-five chapters across 276 pages, the author attempts to show off but not discuss, how the internet as we know it came into our daily lives. Gilder uses a wealth of buzzwords without ever defining them for the reader. The compounding effect of broad terminology, out-of-place analogies that seemingly disrupt the storytelling, make this book a dense and frustrating read. Even for the tech-savvy. He moves from monetary theory to artificial intelligence to silicon valley startup culture without skipping a beat. Until the underwhelming end of the book, I failed to understand the author’s rage against Google and new, emerging technology companies. In the absence of a clear theme of this book, I tried to theorize that the author set out to warn against Google’s free products, attempts to predict the end of the free product business model as the economy is moving towards cryptographic ledgers, most notably blockchain technology and decentralized cryptocurrency. However, Gilder then compares bitcoin to gold and points out the flaws of a scarce resource to become a stable coin in an economy. How this all ties together or even argues for a future with a decreased need of big data processing remains unclear. Why he chose not to discuss cybersecurity as the most potent threat to fiduciaries within a digitalized, capitalistic system remains unclear. This book is incoherent while being overly focused on ideological aspects. It would have served the readers to restrict the discussion to the actual technology.

With all that in mind, I feel this book has some minuscule merit for a philosophical audience without much need for technical detail. Gilder delivers on creating an entry-level overview for future exploration of blockchain technology, large scale computing and its implementation within an economic system that is supported by for-profit corporations. But beyond that, I feel, I am left more confused than enlightened about the interplay between data processing within financial markets, artificial intelligence deployed to equalize market barriers and blockchain as technology that would enable a seismic shift towards decentralized currencies.