When Russia invaded Crimea – and you really have to read up on the situation leading to that, because, well, it’s complicated – that was an act perpetrated by a government that does not think like we do: they will kill for what they want. Some response is necessary. But even there, the effectiveness of sanctions is being debated. But in balance the arguments for them win out, even though they have been crippling to the Russian economy and are hurting the general population, something I would like to avoid. I would base that statement on several opinions that say the economic pressure has significantly decreased Russia’s military capability, which is felt to have stopped them from simply overrunning the Ukraine.
But when it was claimed that Russia hacked the Democratic National Convention (which I am told was an assault on our very way of life – the democratic process – and thus is an unforgivable sin), I for one didn’t jump to the same conclusions that it was time to take off the gloves. The invasion of a sovereign territory should not be compared to accusations of hacking a private computer network.
So before we can even ask “what am I trying to accomplish,” we need to consider what actually happened. Russia hacked the computer systems of the Democratic National convention. Has any other country tried to hack things? Yes, lots of countries it seems, with China being the usual suspect. What kind of stuff are they hacking into? Well, government secrets, military specifications, banks, medical systems, social media sites, all kinds of stuff. Why? Well, some is for simple criminal activities, like getting log-ins and passwords to steal credit cards or money. But the real fear is stuff like stealing sensitive classified information, or even worse, being able to disrupt important services like communication, transportation or other infrastructure, or large-scale financial systems.
When they hacked the DNC, did they actually do anything? Well, looks like no, they just got some information, some emails and such. And they might have leaked some of that out. And by the way, it appears they hacked the Republican computers too. And a lot of other stuff, but let’s not get distracted.
So it seems we caught a big kid in class cheating off our test. And not just any test, a government test, and we are particularly proud of our success in government.
Man, are we ticked off. We aren’t going to punch them in the face (military action), but we are going to publicly call them out, and tell them to stop (public statement by our government). Also, we aren’t going to share the cookies we brought with us, and we are going to give them back those pencils they gave us in first period. In fact, we are going to throw them back in their face (proposed additional sanctions, deport diplomats and families). That will show them.
Except, it’s not actually grade school and there are no teachers, and fights can go really bad here. So let’s consider the results of our actions.
What are we trying to accomplish? We want the Russians to not hack our stuff. OK, but we’d also like other countries to not do that too. The best way to stop that is to increase cybersecurity, so as I mentioned, that should be number one, particularly since there are no downsides there. It also helps for people to think carefully about what they have stored where, and how secure it needs to be. For instance, if you have opinions or ideas or data that you don’t want people to know about, think about whether or not it’s a good idea to put it in an email. Or a tweet. This is the kind of stuff we teach our kids, and it applies to adults too. And to institutions like the Democratic National Convention.
So when I analyze this situation, I come to one primary conclusion: we need to better protect our computer systems. THAT should be the number one response.
Next, we could publicly accuse them. The President is not able to stop people such as folks from the Democratic National Convention or other politicians from putting this information out to the public and calling for whatever action they think is best. But what the President says and does is what everyone is going to think of as our response – he is, in fact, our leader. But what are the pros and cons of the US accusing the Russians of doing something bad? (Remember, there are pros and cons to everything…)
Well, obviously, neither Vladimir Putin nor the Russian government is going to receive it well. But more importantly, what about the Russian people? Put yourself in their shoes: what would you think as an American if you heard the CIA had hacked Russian computers and got hold of information about their presidential election? My guess is you’d smile and nod and think, “We got game!” And how much would you care if the other guys were irritated? “Well, they should get better computer people.”
And the Russian people will respond exactly the same way. So calling them out is going to (1) make us look a bit incompetent, and (2) make us look like, well, whiners. I think those are negatives. But what’s the upside? Will it change anything?
Why would it? It wouldn’t change what you do or think. What makes anyone think the Russian mentality would differ? So in reality, there is no upside, at least not as it relates to Russia. It won’t stop anything, it degrades our reputation globally, and it erodes our relationship with both the leadership and citizens of Russia.
So why do it at all? Calling them our publically benefits the DNC and also various politicians by improving their own public opinion at home (you are impressed, right?). The DNC gets to attribute at least some fraction of their failure in the election to outside, nefarious sources. Congressmen can bluster about and appear patriotic, as they are not about to sit back and allow this horrible affront to our honor, the very core of democracy! But if they went through the same relatively basic thought process that we just did, they would see it’s not the best move for the country. If the DNC really wanted to do what’s best for the country, they would go to the CIA and ask for help, and keep it quiet, so as to not make the situation worse. Congressmen would do the same thing. But then, one of the problems with politics today is that everything revolves around the campaign, and not about doing what’s right.
Expelling diplomats – over the Holidays – is the political equivalent to throwing a tantrum. I prefer we think a little more, work together a little more, and act childish a whole lot less.