Russian influence and Shadow Brokers’ message ‘to elites’

Weeks after the Shadow Brokers Equation Group leaks, there has been plenty of speculation over the origin of the data tools auction and the timing of their release. Even Edward Snowden’s Twitter Account helpfully weighed in, directing his followers in the tech world and the public in how best to interpret the meaning of the leaks.

Just today comes the report from the Washington Post about the US investigating Russian influence operations ahead of the US election.

Hillary Clinton

A closer look at the message released with the Shadow Brokers leak, written in a kind of Charlie Chan English, strikes me how closely its themes conform to a broader storyline Russia has been pushing about power in the West generally and about Hillary Clinton specifically. Whether this means that Russia is behind the leak – we will probably never know. But the marketing of the message fits pretty closely.

First, let’s be clear: there are legitimate (very, legitimate) reform movements, parties, leaders seeking to address the excesses of economic globalization and inequality which have hurt middle classes in advanced societies.

Now on to the Shadow Brokers statement.

A feature of Russian propaganda is to fuse their strategic message with a legitimate message or messenger or cause.

What’s significant about the anti-elite message in the Shadow Brokers message, is that it matches Russian messaging elsewhere, which equates so-called “globalism” with America. This Russia-backed campaign has directed a lot of energy against Hillary Clinton, who is, to be sure, an elite insider.

But in a race between a competent insider such as herself and a candidate who could well prove to be a wrecking ball for democratic institutions in the West, well, you can see the choice American voters are faced with.

By now, most people following the Shadow Brokers intrigue have heard of the message that begins: “How much you pay for enemies cyber weapons?”

But it’s the “Closing Remarks” which carry the message that hits many of the same notes as the global anti-Hillary campaign/pro-Trump campaign against elites.

Consider this final part of the message.

We have final message for “Wealthy Elites”.

We know what is wealthy but what is Elites? Elites is making laws protect self and friends,
lie and fuck other peoples. Elites is breaking laws, regular peoples go to jail, life ruin, family ruin, but not Elites. Elites is breaking laws, many peoples know Elites guilty, Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit. Reporters (not call journalist) make living say write only nice things about Elites, convince dumb cattle, is just politics, everything is awesome, check out our ads and our prostitutes. Then Elites runs for president. Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?

The implication that all power and elites are corrupt and there seem to be nods even to Hillary’s email woes.

“Elites is breaking laws…”

[The feeling that Clinton has somehow evaded prosecution over her handling of her emails while Secretary of State.]

“Many peoples know Elites guilty”

[The general perception of untrustworthiness by voters].

“Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit.”

[FBI Director James Comey not recommending charges against Clinton. At the time, to the dismay of the Hillary-hunting right in the US politics, Comey said: “I see evidence of great carelessness, but I do not see evidence that is sufficient to establish that Secretary Clinton or those with whom she was corresponding both talked about classified information on e-mail and knew when they did it they were doing something that was against the law.”]

FBI director James Comey

“Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?”

[Again this notion of a rigged system in which government itself is unaccountable].

“The Elites runs for president” is a curious line, not only because the 2016 election in the US is happening, but surely because the elites of the world aren’t all in systems that elect presidents rather than prime ministers, chancellors, etc. So the message is written either by or for people close to a constitutional republic like the US.

This is a message to hackers that seems to have a lot to say about “elites” who sound a lot like Hillary Clinton running for president. Even the discussion of “blow-jobs” would seem to name check the most famous “blow job” to ever reported in the White House – again a Clinton-related matter.

The message even echoes rhetoric used against Democrat Hillary Clinton – overtly, by Trump’s campaign, by unnamed trolls.



The writer of the message for the Wealthy Elites seems to acknowledge they’re at risk of going off course with their manifesto on the nature of power in the 21st Century. The next line:

What this have do with fun Cyber Weapons Auction? We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites. Your wealth and control depends on electronic data. You see what “Equation Group” can do. You see what cryptolockers [ransomware] and stuxnet can do. You see free files we give for free. You see attacks on banks and SWIFT in news. Maybe there is Equation Group version of cryptolocker+stuxnet for banks and financial systems? If Equation Group lose control of cyber weapons, who else lose or find cyber weapons? If electronic data go bye bye where leave Wealthy Elites? Maybe with dumb cattle? “Do you feel in charge?” Wealthy Elites, you send bitcoins, you bid in auction, maybe big advantage for you?

It’s entirely possible that whoever crafted the ‘Wealthy Elites’ message isn’t the same group who got hold of the Equation Group exploits. What does ideology and politcal spin like this matter to hackers more concerned with the technical challenge? And what do propagandists care about the technical details on an exploit, as long as it is authentic, or appears authentic enough to inject the message in high-credibility circles online.

The ‘Wealthy Elites’ message is oblique. It doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton – but it certainly conveys Hillary Clinton. It’s oblique in much of the way a lot of effective propaganda is. Rather than being a full frontal attack on a specific person, it’s a broader and more effective sideswipe. Accordingly, as the Washington Post report on the US investigation notes:

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack US democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

A broadside against elites, that seems to fit Clinton’s description would do this.

There is a long history of this kind of Russian propaganda towards the West in general and the US specifically. Here is an example of the rhetoric used in making Soviet propaganda attractive to Western thinkers and intellectuals in the 1930s – during the Great Depression, a period, not unlike today, when the Western economic and political system is being questioned at home and abroad. The person relating it explained how propaganda in the West was most effective – not by being pro-Joe Stalin – but being an outspoken innocent with high ideals.

You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviets. Ever. Under any circumstances. You claim to be an independent-minded idealist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here in our own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the working man. You think the Russians are trying a great human experiment, and you hope it works. You believe in peace. You yearn for international understanding. You hate fascism. You think the capitalism system is corrupt.

(from Stephen Koch’s Double Lives)

That pattern fits closely to the talk of “globalists” and “elites’ and “neoliberalism” today.

As the Washington Post story notes of the Russian influence efforts in the US election: It “seems to be a global campaign,”

Clearly, the hunger for reform in Western democracies is being co-opted by the wizards of propaganda in the East (look at the Bernie Sanders supporters who now oppose Sanders in their quest for “revolution.”). So I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the timing and message of Shadow Brokers leaks is related to this. The message to the wealthy elites seems to share some DNA with the anti-Hillary Clinton messages flooding the internet.

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Balkanization of the Internet watch

Russia to crackdown on bloggers, and seek to follow the China model of Internet control. Any blogger getting more than 3000 hits a day qualifies.

This is part of a broader de-globalization trend, I think. In a few years, we’re going to see the World Wide Web as more of a patchwork of national yards – and some areas that remain open internationally.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership looks increasingly doomed – and possibly with good reason

Not only is US congress reasserting its right to oversee an agreement whose details have been kept secret from it but the period of trade deal mania may be passing. That’s because the period of globalization may be drawing to an end. Sure, global trade continues. But there is a Balkanization going on. Russia and China are drifting further from Western trade institutions. The China-Japan tensions are likely to have a lasting effect on East Asian trade. As Russia’s economy falters its reliance on coercion grows. At the same time, the US is looking decidedly inward, after the post-9/11 age. In this climate, the value of trade deals remains dubious. And as US trade expert/globalization-scoffer Clyde Prestowitz elucidates on the TPP: 

“Congress is saying that free trade deals now truly have to be about trade and not about reassuring allies of U.S. commitment to them. No longer will Congress agree to buy allies with distorted and lopsided trade deals. The end of American hegemony will be mourned by many around the world and in America, but it is likely to be a very good thing for U.S. workers and the American middle class.”

Further, the WikiLeaks TPP leak shows how US corporates are fashioning a sweetheart deal for themselves in the area of IP trade negotiations. This group is already on the bad side of US citizens after decades of gaming the economy against them. Now companies want to have their legal wishlist enshrined in a pan-Pacific trade deal.

“The extent of this unbalanced influence and how it works can be seen in the contents of the leaks. The deal being proposed apparently includes measures like those contained in the Stop OnLine Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act that have already failed once to achieve passage in Congress… Clearly what is afoot is that the non-transparent TPP talks are being used to make an end run around the Congress and the parliaments and publics of many countries to achieve far reaching special rights in the guise of free trade.”

It also raises an intriguing question: should the US look to trade as the best way to reassure allies in the region? Compare the trends emerging in the past three decades in the US and hold them up against what’s happening with China. In the US business has assumed a prime place in society since the time of Reagan. Even the Supreme Court has upheld corporations’ “right” to free speech. (Is this really what the American Revolution was about?) But now incomes in the US are dangerously unequal, thanks in large part to a system in which capitalism has effectively eroded democracy. China meanwhile is aggressively growing its economy and trying to find a balance between state control and some form of citizen’s right. Its economy is dangerously unequal, as well.

More crucially, China’s government relies on secrecy as a strategy. The more powerful it grows, the more uncertainty and ambiguity it can foist onto global affairs (We want peace with our neighbors/we want revenge on Japan-duality, etc). What the US can offer as a strategic counterbalance is transparency. The world craves it. But engaging in secret trade negotiations over the TPP runs counter to a long-term US strategy.

Even though business has essentially driven politics in recent years in the US, it’s likely that will the difficulties faced in the US economy, politics will move business. Obamacare is the biggest example of that. History runs in cycles and in the US, just as deregulation hastened the decline of the middle class, re-regulation in key areas may assist its restoration. This represents a switch from the concept of people as citizens, rather than people as consumers. In China, too, there is a tentative effort to embrace a kind of civil society (while cracking down on journalists- there is that duality, again).

In this period of reform on both sides of the Pacific, if the US wants to send a signal to non-China Asia, maybe the US should consider an agreement less about trade and more about codes of conduct in diplomacy and security with a measure of transparency. The last thing the US would want is to shackle citizens of Pacific countries with the kind of onerous trade laws that undermine their own rights. If the outlook for the TPP is uncertain, it could be because the agreement is founded on an already-dated understanding of how to achieve international influence.

Further, if war is possible, then US business is wrong to think it can piggy-back its needs onto the needs of the US as it contends with the turbulent region. How thoroughly 1995.

Ideology in the China-US struggle

There is a longish piece on Foreign Policy by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman makes a couple interesting points that I would agree with about the US-China struggle. His basic point that the US and China are enemies, while also being mutually dependent on each other for economic growth, is not new. You can’t help but wonder if the struggle will be a catalyst for economic change on either side. I can imagine US inventors wanting to grow the US economy in a way far less dependent on China for imports. The author, being a law professor, seems to hold out hope for international legal norms helping shape the US-China competition. Unfortunately, I think only one side will support legal norms and it’s not going to be China, which views much of a Western law, as just that: Western law.

But the most interesting part of Feldman’s piece was his observation that the US diplomatic push in Asia wont be enough and instead ideology will become important.

The United States will also have to broaden its base of allies using the tools of ideology. The strongest argument that can be made to countries that trade freely with China is that Chinese hegemony would threaten their democratic freedoms. Sen. John McCain’s proposed league of democracies — a kind of free-form alliance of ideologically similar states designed to leave out China and Russia — is therefore likely to be revived eventually, though probably under another name.

The economics will underpin the ideological battle, which becomes all clearer as Chinese compete with each other to define the ‘Chinese Dream’, as noted by The Economist, while in the US, the broad theme is restoring the ‘American Dream’ bringing with it a heady mix of idealism and activism.

It makes me think of a line by writer Jon Savage discussing the generation gap between youth of the 1920s and 1930s: “contrasting utopias became national ideologies.” And no, people don’t think in the utopias today as they would have nearly 100 years ago. But people can’t help but think in transcendent, poetic terms – that’s humanity.

Feldman denies that we will have a rerun of the Cold War, which is worth acknowledging.

Whatever the new struggle looks like, it won’t look like the US-Soviet relationship in the 1950s, say. But the broader competition will be there.

…both sides need to cultivate allies as a component of their struggle. The Cold War’s major strategic developments, from Soviet expansion to containment, from détente to Richard Nixon’s opening to China, all clustered around the question of who would be aligned with whom.

China and the US will “struggle to gain and keep allies” but trade will be part-weapon, part-bond that forces countries being courted by the US and China to choose sides. Here, I imagine the ideology will mean a lot. And key countries, like Australia, for example, “may try to have it both ways.”

This is why many countries attempt to negotiate free trade with one or both sides, while keeping security ties with the other.

This would be a world interlinked by trade, but balkanized by ideology. And where does that leave corporations?

Global corporations will have to develop new national allegiances as part of a Cool War world [what Feldman calls the new order], but they can also provide incentives to discourage violence and associated economic losses.

Seeing as Western companies led the charge in globalization, it will be interesting to see how they begin to identify with particular nations again. Just over a decade ago, it was in vogue to malign any critic of globalization a sort of nationalist, xenophobe. I think that’s no longer the case.