Reasons to Fear a Perfect Cyber Storm in 2020

Reasons to Fear a Perfect Cyber Storm in 2020

It's just over 12 months until the US presidential election. So, how are you feeling? A bit on edge? Good, because against a tense geopolitical backdrop, and with an impeachment drama playing out in the House of Representatives, a series of recent headlines has left your Wednesday Signal author concerned that we could be heading for a perfect storm…of election meddling and other cyber mischief.


Consider the following:

Russian trolls are back. And Iranian trolls, and…On Monday, Facebook said it had dismantled four account groups (one Russian, three Iranian) for "coordinated inauthentic behavior." The company has already taken out 50 similar disinformation campaigns over the past 12 months. This latest catch was meant to be reassuring: look the tech giants are getting better at fighting disinformation campaigns! But the less charitable read is that troll armies backed by multiple US adversaries are continuing to refine their tactics, and will almost certainly try to interfere in a presidential race that is already shaping up to be the most bitter in recent memory.

Deterrence isn't working. Those Russian and Iranian groups were hard at work just three weeks after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again warned foreign powers not to mess with US elections. And the Treasury Department last month slapped sanctions on seven Russians for running troll farms during the 2018 US midterms. Fat lot of good it's doing. Iran, which paid almost no price for taking out half of Saudi Arabia's oil supply with drones last month, seems unlikely to be dissuaded from something as comparatively milquetoast as spreading lies on social media. China may also have new incentives to wade into the disinformation game next year if its trade dispute with the US drags on and it gives up on ever striking a real deal with Trump. If 2016 was marred by Russian propaganda and hacking to promote Trump, 2020 could see the disinformation flying thicker and faster on all sides.

False flags make it all worse. Elsewhere on Monday, UK and US spooks detailed a scheme in which elite Russian cyber-operators posed as an Iranian hacking team to steal information from a host of companies and governments. Again, there's both a reassuring way to interpret this news and a terrifying way. It's reassuring that the UK and US were able to detect the Russians' attempt to pose as Iranian hackers. But it's terrifying to consider how hard it still is to figure out who's doing what in cyberspace. Will more serious attempts to interfere, such as messing with voting machines or tallies, be detected and accurately sourced?

How it could all go wrong: Facebook's former head of cybersecurity has already warned that if the 2020 election is compromised by disinformation and hacking, the loser would have a wide-open door to question the results, raising a broader crisis of legitimacy in the US system. You can read his nightmare scenario here. The foreign policy implications of a successful attempt to undermine the US elections could also be severe if the US lashes out in response, raising the risk of a broader conflict. A perfect storm of cyber risks to the election might not be the most likely scenario for 2020, but it's at least a plausible one, and that alone is concerning.

During the past year, 58% of all cyberattacks observed by Microsoft from nation-states have come from Russia. And attacks from Russian nation-state actors are increasingly effective, jumping from a 21% successful compromise rate last year to a 32% rate this year. Russian nation-state actors are increasingly targeting government agencies for intelligence gathering, which jumped from 3% of their targets a year ago to 53% – largely agencies involved in foreign policy, national security or defense. The top three countries targeted by Russian nation-state actors were the United States, Ukraine and the UK. These are just a few of the insights in the second annual Microsoft Digital Defense Report. Read additional highlights from the Microsoft on the Issues blog and find the full report here.

If you had to guess which current world leader has made the most trips to Africa, who would you say? China's Xi Jinping? Nope, hardly — he's been there just four times. France's Emmanuel Macron? Pas de tout.

The answer may surprise you: it's Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been to the continent more times than the leader(s) of any other non-African state. Just this week he notched his 28th visit, with stops in Angola, Nigeria, and Togo. Sure, being in power for two decades creates a lot of opportunities for exotic travel, but even Putin isn't close: he's been to Africa just five times, all to visit South Africa or Egypt.

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Former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was killed by rebels on 20 October, 2011, after a NATO intervention designed to protect civilians helped strengthen an uprising against his regime. Since then, the country has been mired in chaos as different factions have battled for control, resulting in extensive destruction and human causalities. Libya has been nominally governed since 2014 by warring administrations backed by foreign powers in the west and east of the country. Last year, UN mediation efforts finally began to gain traction with an agreement on a cease-fire and a roadmap for elections to be held later this year. We talked with Eurasia Group expert Ahmed Morsy to find out how things are going.

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China's GDP grew a lower-than-expected 4.9 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, a whopping three percentage points less than in the previous period. It's a big deal for the world's second-largest economy, the only major one that expanded throughout the pandemic — and now at risk of missing its growth target of 6 percent for the entire year.

Normally, such a drastic slowdown would have put the ruling Communist Party in a tizzy. But this time, Xi Jinping knows this is the price he must pay for his big plans to curb rising inequality and boost the middle class at the expense of the CCP's traditional economic mantra: high growth above all else.

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6,000: Poland has doubled the number of troops guarding its border with Belarus to almost 6,000 because of a surge in migrants trying to cross over (there were 612 attempts on Monday alone). Warsaw accuses Minsk of sending non-EU migrants into Poland as payback for EU sanctions against Belarus.

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Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.

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China gets away with a lot these days in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. That's because over the past decade, its economy has experienced explosive growth, making it an indispensable trading partner for almost every country in the world. At the same time, China has been expanding its share of the global economy, and is now set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economic powerhouse in the near term. We take a look at China's annual growth rate and share of the global economy based on GDP over the past decade.

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