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.

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Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

GZERO Media caught up with Japan's Permanent Representative to the UN Kimihiro Ishikane during the 2020 UN General Assembly. In an interview with Eurasia Group Vice Chairman Gerald Butts, Ishikane talked about pandemic response, and how it has impacted the broader picture of US-China relations. Regarding a global fissure potentially caused by the world's two biggest economies, Ishikane said: "China is not like the former Soviet Union. Our system is completely intertwined, and I don't think we can completely decouple our economy and neither is that desirable." He also discussed the legacy of Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, who stepped down recently due to health complications.

The world's two biggest economic powers threaten to create a "big rupture" in geopolitics, but "we are not there yet," UN Secretary-General António Guterres tells Ian Bremmer. In an interview for GZERO World, the leader of the world's best-known multilateral organization discusses the risks involved as the US and China grow further apart on key issues.

Watch the episode: UN Secretary-General António Guterres: Why we still need the United Nations

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