We are partners in our own demise: ex-president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Too much information, too much contradiction and too much confusion. In this era, how do we even think about where democracy stands in the world? The former president of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, in a speech in honour of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, offers a clear-eyed assessment of the state of democracy today in competition with Russia, China  and other autocracies. He notes how there once was moral clarity about where the West stood in relations to these countries. Not so now: one of the fallouts of 30 years of globalisation, the internet and free trade is this great blurring, which sees Western economies, governments and businesses accept the ill-gotten wealth of strongmen. Ilves poses the question: are we “un-indicted co-conspirators” in our demise? He asks in terms of money. But I think a similar case can be made in terms of information and ideas.

You can hear Ilves’ full speech here – starting at 9.33

Text of the speech here.

Media analyst Vasily Gatov’s analysis of the Kremlin’s information war (2015) 

Networked blindness

When it comes to defence of the common knowledge in a democracy, disinfo research that focuses primarily on networks can be problematic.

Just look at recent history.

Since the Kremlin interfered with the US election in 2016, the focus of democracy’s defence has been “the network.” Researchers look for and find malicious accounts there.  

But in the era of the attention economy, even focusing on the network can distract us from where we should be looking. 

In 2020, a coterie of public figures, including former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, helped push deceptive statements, linked back to Russia, into the American political debate, with the goal of hurting Joe Biden’s candidacy.

By using an ‘influencer’ strategy the Kremlin’s proxies simply cake-walked past the Maginot Line of defense erected by the disinformation research community.

Years earlier, in 2016, the White House’s (and much of the public’s) attention was on the networks of cybersecurity

But at that time, it was the content on those networks, not the networks themselves, that was the primary target for meddling and mayhem.

In the years ahead, you can expect the venue of the mayhem to change again.

In other words, guessing the vector of an “information attack” is nearly impossible.

So our best long-term defence may not be in patrolling networks.

Surprising names emerge in ransomware gang interview

It is only a passing mention, and there is no accusation of any wrongdoing. This October 2020 interview with a Russian ransomeware operator, translated and transcribed in July, has many interesting parts, including the discussion of industries the gangs target and the structure of the ransomware groups. By far, the most interesting line is this exchange on the donations to charity the group may make.

Interviewer: Do you do charity work? For example donating to various open source foundations, the Tor Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation?

REvil: Possibly.

This is interesting for two reasons. There has been more attention paid to the torrent of Kremlin-aligned donations to Western charities in recent years. They are done to launder the reputations of Russian oligarchs, and expand their influence deeper into Western society.

The second reason is that such donations can support organisations and arguments that further polarize debate in the West – particularly the tech debate. The issue of encryption is a genuine challenge for the lawful society of the West. People like Edward Snowden (or at least his Twitter account operated from Russia) counsel no compromise on the issue. To fund more voices in this space that counsel dogmatism where sensible compromise is needed, would be an effective way of distorting debate. We’ve seen this in funding of fringe political groups, and politicians. Why not Silicon Valley too? 

Ransomware gangs: today’s pirate fleets

“Cyber security experts, ex-military officials and some politicians are pushing for ransomware gangs to be treated not as hackers but like “pirates” of the past, in a rethink of how to best counter their growing threat to businesses, industries and society.”

“The shift recognises the way ransomware gangs are used by authoritarian nations to mount sustained attacks on Western businesses and sectors, a new dimension in the ongoing contest between strongmen and democracies.”

The full story here.

It’s an idea whose time has come.

I actually wrote about this idea right after the Sony hack on this little blog here in 2015.