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Defrag This

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Defrag This - The Great Cyber War

Greg Mooney| November 10 2017

| Podcasts, security

There are a few reasons why ethics in technology and cybersecurity is more important than ever as the law struggles to catch up.

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This post is based on an interview with Mary ManjikianProfessor at the Robertson School of Government and author of Cybersecurity Ethics: An Introduction, available for purchase on Amazon.  

Did the Russians influence the U.S. Presidential Election in 2016?

After the recent senate hearings regarding this issue, we can definitely say they tried. However, we may never be available to definitively say how successful they were.

However, we can definitively say that this is an example of how the rapid pace of technological growth has some interesting—and potentially dangerous—ethical implications in cyber space.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the history behind international political interference as well as how that interference has evolved in the present so we can get a better grasp of the reason ethics in this matter are so important, both for individuals and cybersecurity professionals.

History of Interference

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Nations have tried to influence each other’s political state for centuries, but it has become more noticeable in recent decades.

"What Russia is doing is not fundamentally new. Those under the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia, their intelligence services (then KGB and now FSB) have been attempting to influence citizens and organizations abroad through using disinformation," Manjikian explains. 

For instance, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both attempted to manipulate elections at the height of the Cold War. Operatives for both nations funneled campaign dollars to parties they wanted to see take the elections, particularly in Eastern European countries.

This is technically against international law, as the United Nations has a statute against intervention in other nation’s affairs like this.

But, what Russia did concerning the U.S. elections in 2016 is a bit different than channeling money to a political party.

Recent Events

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Russia attempted to influence U.S. citizens directly via stealth ads, predominantly on Facebook, though also through other social media sites.

Manjikian states, "The stealth ads which ran on Facebook weren't generic. They were segmented as targeting specific types of Americans. So, they were aimed not only at influencing the election, but really influencing the larger political climate in the US."

Essentially, it was much more sophisticated than posting generic ads prompting viewers to vote for one candidate over another.

The problem with this is much like that of the contentious topic of fake news. Most people don’t have the skills to figure out where information is coming from and whether or not it is credible.

This can have huge consequences for future elections, as well as more general dissemination of critical information.

On the future election front: people may always wonder if the election is actually fair or if there is outside influence. The U.S. already has a low turnout rate for the voting booths, and this could cause that rate to sink even lower as people might believe their votes won’t matter.

On the critical information side: there is a lot of information out there, and a lot of it is incredibly inaccurate. That means that during times of crisis—like the recent rounds of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the wildfires on the west coast—government aid groups like FEMA may have difficulty making the best decisions. 

Or think about it from a cybersecurity angle: How often have you seen advice online, or even from traditional media, related to cyber threats where the information is inaccurate or just plain wrong?

In all of these cases, individuals’ situational awareness is impacted by false information, and that can be extremely dangerous.

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The Reason Ethics Matter

That’s where the subject of ethics comes in.

Social media has changed how we consume media. Technology is evolving far faster than laws can keep up with it.

Think about Russia again. One of the subjects of the senate hearings dealt with Facebook’s decision to sell the ad space to companies linked to the Kremlin. Was it Facebook’s responsibility to more closely monitor who was buying the ads and what they were using them for?

From a legal standpoint? No.

But, from an ethical standpoint? Most likely.

Manjikian explains, "The idea of ethics is that it's different than law. It helps us to know what to do in these grey areas where the law and practice maybe has't caught up yet with a technological change."

We’re all working in a cyber environment these days, so it pays to be aware of these ethical issues and the implications they can have on all facets of cyber life.

Conclusion

We need accurate and reliable information, whether we’re choosing who to vote for, figuring out if our home is in danger from natural disasters, or trying to protect ourselves online.

The flood of false or uncertain content online makes this difficult.

But, if we focus on the ethical issues behind the activities that lead to fake news, maybe we can stem the flood.

You can find this interview and many more, by subscribing to Defrag This.

Topics: Podcasts, security

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THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY Greg Mooney

Greg is a technologist and data geek with over 10 years in tech. He has worked in a variety of industries as an IT manager and software tester. Greg is an avid writer on everything IT related, from cyber security to troubleshooting.

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