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Experts Discuss Cyber Espionage, Propaganda, and Russia

Posted Mar 08 2017

Growing concern over Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election has led many to question how the U.S. should address and guard against cyber espionage conducted by foreign states.

“We have to look at [hacking] as war,” said Toomas Ilves, former president of Estonia, in March 2 remarks at the Italian Academy. “Just because the threat is digital does not mean it is not aggression.”

Ilves went on to argue that the Internet has contributed to the global trend toward populism.

“The Internet is being instrumentalized by the Russians,” he said. “The tool that we thought would promote democracy is being used to manipulate the electorate.”

Following Ilves’s speech, Dean Merit E. Janow of SIPA moderated a panel discussion with Columbia faculty experts Timothy Frye, Kimberly Marten, and Jason Healey.

Healey said that the cybersecurity threat posed by Russia is not new.

“The U.S. has failed to translate knowledge into policy,” Healey said. “We know the Russian mode of operations—i.e. propaganda—but we have become worse at dealing with it.”

He later suggested that the Obama administration belief that a Democrat would win the election affected how it dealt with Russia.

“Obama thought that we had another four years to deal with Russia. He thought we could outwait the Russians, but it turns out that Putin has outwaited them,” he said.

Frye offered more insight into Russia’s motivation for the use of covert cyber operations.

“The domestic political goal within Russia is to demonstrate that elections in the West are fraudulent,” he said. “The government wants to show its public that open societies are flawed, too, so there is no point in becoming a democratic state.”

He added that it is important for the United States to stop this idea from taking root in Russia and other autocratic states.

Marten proposed the creation of a cyber accord to limit the public release of personal information gained through hacking.

“Limiting hacking is not reasonable,” she said. “Governments will engage in espionage if they have the tools to do so. However, Putin and Trump should sit down and come to an agreement to not do so.”

Ilves expressed some reservations about the idea of such an accord.

“It is always worthwhile to get an agreement, but the question is how effective it will be and how long will it take,” he said.

“Unfortunately," said Marten, "we have a lot more to lose than Russia does if the release of civilian information continues to happen.”

— Serina Bellamy MIA ’17

pictured: (left) Toomas Ilves; (right) Jason Healey, Timothy Frye, Kimberly Martin // photo by Barbara Alper