Many Americans today question what is to be done about preventing future Russian interventions in our electoral system. Russian “micro-targeting” used to spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential election was so sophisticated that influence packages were custom tailored by interest group, locality and even individual voter.
An ongoing question remains about whether or not Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm with connections to White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, was the American port of entry for Russian influence operations. Other questions revolve around the role of the Trump presidential campaign. While these are important questions, the answers await Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Where the public must concern ourselves is how to prevent the next Russian intervention in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Some 39 state election systems were reportedly hacked by the Russian government. But by only focusing on the events of 2016, the U.S. remains vulnerable.
Having worked in the Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, I can attest that the one of the hallmarks of the Russian government’s asymmetrical warfare is to constantly evolve and to incorporate the newest tools at its disposal. By using sophisticated capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica, Russia will only further refine its ability to micro-target.
With access to voter rolls, social media profiles, online shopping habits, etc. a foreign government can create a very sophisticated effort to change outcomes vote by vote. Coupled with the same machine-learning tools that make recommendations on Amazon and Spotify, nefarious interests will use them to create fake news customized to an individual’s political profile. This is why protecting voter rolls and online privacy is a critical pillar of 21st century democracy and not just a debate over individual and corporate rights.
While the 2016 election intervention is disturbing, it might be time for Congress to create a new “Church Committee” to investigate the intersections of foreign entities, corporate interests and cyberwarfare. We can surely expect to see evolved influence campaigns in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. Idahoans should continue to speak strongly against the call to surrender voter information to Washington. We should also work to reframe net neutrality as a matter of national security. And most importantly, we must trust the apolitical technocrats in our national security infrastructure when they explain the seriousness of threats to our electoral processes.
Chase Johnson is a research associate at Boise State University’s Frank Church Institute.