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.

Each month, Microsoft receives about 6,500 complaints from people who've been victims of tech support scams. But it's not just Microsoft's brand that the scammers leverage; fraudsters have pretended to be from a number of other reputable tech companies and service providers. These scams will remain an industry-wide challenge until sufficient people are educated about how they work and how to avoid them.

To measure the scope of this problem globally, Microsoft commissioned YouGov for a new 2021 survey across 16 countries. Results from the 2021 survey reveal that, globally, fewer consumers have been exposed to tech support scams as compared to the 2018 survey. However, those people who continued with the interaction were more likely to have lost money to the scammers than we saw in our previous survey. To read the highlights of the survey, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Next week, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who is ideologically and personally close to Iran's 82 year-old supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be inaugurated as Iran's president. This power transition comes as the country experiences a fresh wave of protests that started in Iran's southwest over water shortages earlier this month and has since spilled over into dozens of provinces.

Some close observers of Iranian society and politics say that popular discontent there is now more widespread than it has been in years, making the Iranian regime more vulnerable than ever.

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Was the world so focused on climate change that warning signs about the COVID-19 pandemic were missed? Historian and author Niall Ferguson argues that, while the climate crisis poses a long-term threat to humanity, other potential catastrophes are much more dangerous in the near future. "We took our eye off that ball," Ferguson says about COVID, "despite numerous warnings, because global climate change has become the issue that Greta Thunberg said, would bring the end of the world. But the point I'm making in DOOM [his new book] is that we can end the world and a lot of other ways, much faster." Ferguson spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview for GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Predictable disaster and the surprising history of shocks

Tunisia, the only country that emerged a democracy from the Arab Spring, is now in the middle of its worst political crisis since it got rid of former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a decade ago.

On Sunday, the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, President Kais Saied responded to widespread protests over the ailing economy and COVID by firing embattled Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days. Troops have surrounded the legislature, where rival crowds faced off on Monday, with one side chanting in support of the move and the other denouncing it as a coup.

How did we get here, do we even know who's really in charge, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week:

As COVID-19 cases rise, are vaccine mandates coming?

Oh, you just want to get me in more trouble. Yeah, some mandates are coming, but they're not national mandates in the United States. In some cases, you're looking at federal and state employees, in some cases you're looking at lots of individual corporations, universities, and such. I mean I've already been to a number of events where vaccines have been mandated in New York. You've got this Excelsior Pass if you want to go to the Brooklyn Nets games, as I certainly do. You show it off and that gets you in with your vaccine. So I think it's really going to be a decentralized process. But clearly, given Delta variant and the number of people that are getting sick and dying because they're not vaccinated, you're going to see moves towards more mandates, as a consequence.

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Castillo takes over in Peru: After almost two months of protests, baseless allegations of fraud from his rival in the runoff election, and even rumblings of a coup, Pedro Castillo will be sworn in as president of Peru on Wednesday. A former rural school-teacher famous for riding on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat and waving a giant pencil to show how much he cares about education, Castillo has big plans to achieve big change. But he won by just a razor-thin margin in a deeply divided country, and Peru's dysfunctional political system will likely hobble his attempts to get major legislation passed. Moreover, despite having moderated his positions, half of the country still sees him as a communist who might turn Peru into another Venezuela. Castillo's most immediate task is dealing with the twin crises of a deadly pandemic and a COVID-fueled economic crisis that has hit poor Peruvians — his base — the hardest.

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13: The two Koreas have restored their communication hotline almost 13 months after Pyongyang abruptly cut it in response to Seoul not doing enough to prevent North Korean defectors from sending propaganda leaflets across the shared border. The hotline was established in 2018 following a historic meeting between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

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Now that the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, your Signal crew will be bringing you some intriguing, uplifting, and quirky facts about the Games that have many people on edge.

Today — what's the smallest country (by population) to win a gold medal in a summer Olympics?

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