2 min read

The New, Old Endless Race

Should voters start questioning or refusing to accept election outcomes, things will unravel very quickly.

Seven months ago, I wrote Big Hacks and Apple’s Endless Race, an essay on Apple's approach to chip security. Here's the crucial passage:

In Apple’s statement, one sentence struck me as both critical and unusually honest (my emphasis): “We know that security is an endless race and that’s why we constantly fortify our systems against increasingly sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals who want to steal our data.” Why is this point important? Because Apple cannot win — or even finish — an endless race. Hackers have to be right or lucky once. They see the finish line.

Apple's need to secure its supply line is not the only endless race. The other one that comes to mind is nation-to-nation election interference.

Lt. Mueller wrapped up his investigation – and urged Congress to do its job – but we are in a single-direction race to new, multi-source forms of foreign interference in political elections.

Russia's efforts to elect Donald Trump was a warm-up for the new, old endless race.

Foreign interference is nothing new. Most countries with the capabilities, including the United States, have interfered in the political, military, and social affairs of other countries.*

While foreign interference is not new, the ability of foreign adversaries to directly and digitally influence Americans (or allies) is a new version of an old story. As more of our lives move online, an adversary's ability to influence, deceive, or mobilize us will increase exponentially. It's the inevitable risk of technology, and the threat of our growing reliance on it.

Take 2016. Whether or not it was working collaboratively with Team Trump, Russian intelligence ran a digitally-native influence campaign targeted directly at voting-age Americans. Russia's approach was not overly sophisticated; the digital infrastructure exists to develop, promote, and perpetuate all types of online messaging.

Russia's crude disinformation campaign had a simple, crude goal. Its primary objective was not to turn Hillary voters into Trump voters. Instead, Russia's goal was to sow confusion and chaos in the American electorate, which would suppress voter turnout.

Russia helped Donald Trump by frustrating Americans so much that they stayed at home on election day.

2020 and beyond will see much more sophisticated approaches to election interference. Other countries will learn from 2016, leverage better technology and bigger data, and add digital fuel to the fire that is already burning hot.

The most significant risk in election interference is legitimacy. Should voters start questioning or refusing to accept election outcomes, things will unravel very quickly. And, honestly, that outcome doesn't seem too far-fetched.

To mix sports analogies, we are in the first inning of an endless race. We are not prepared.

*If you want to read a good account of how foreign interference happens, read this book on the Dulles Brothers.