The increasingly complicated and technologically dependent financial system grows more vulnerable by the day, and governments are showing themselves to be wholly unable to respond effectively.
Allegations that Russia somehow influenced the narrow Brexit vote in the UK illustrate the extent of the issue of cyber attacks. The politicization of the online realm is changing the way elections are fought. In countries such as the UK, where there are existing rules on campaign financing and TV advertising, the ability to influence millions of people online is making such rules redundant.
The paper trail regarding the Brexit referendum does raise eyebrows. Large sums of “dark money” were used to fund anti-EU groups during the campaign. Current allegations concern the largest donation in British political history, made by Arron Banks, whose wife is from Russia and who has extensive business links in that country.
The businessman, who is now under investigation by the Electoral Commission, is all the more suspicious given his meteoric return to good fortune. Close to bankruptcy in 2013, he began buying up diamond mines in southern Africa and other such assets soon after. How and why he became a conduit for Russian money in the British political arena remains to be seen, but it reflects gaping holes in party financing.
The last US presidential election brought the issue of Russian trolling to the fore. It is understood that Russian agents meaning to sow discord among Americans disseminated provocative posts that were read by 126 million people on Facebook. They also published more than 131,000 tweets and uploaded more than 1,000 videos on YouTube.
The numbers go some way to underlining the extent of the Kremlin’s efforts to exploit divisions in the US using American technology. The astonishing fact about the campaign is how Russian efforts were able to lever existing tensions and ape the discourse of conservatives.
In demonizing Hillary Clinton and stirring up fear over the migration of Hispanics, the Kremlin was able to exploit the prejudices and paranoia that Americans had allowed to govern their political debate. Had US elections retained some semblance of rationalism and focused on policy over personality and hysteria, they would not have been so surgically exploited.
Multiple investigations of Russian meddling have haunted the first year of the Trump presidency. They have all highlighted how Silicon Valley facilitated Russian infiltration, and that online users’ overreliance on digital news has rendered them increasingly unable to assess the origin of stories, and has fostered a culture of gullibility.
A determined attack on the Western financial system would likely disable stock markets, and bank balances — which are simply digital figures — could be erased.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Though traces of Russian interference in France, Germany and Canada are concerning, they have illustrated how the American political arena was easier to manipulate. But this does not preclude them from the destabilizing effects of online manipulation.
In May, thousands of internal emails and other documents of France’s En Marche! campaign were released online overnight. Investigations showed that the hacking group APT 28, also known as Fancy Bear and Pawn Storm, was responsible. The group is linked to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence directorate.
The hack was alarming because despite APT 28’s clear technical capabilities, its primary route of attack was a simple method known as spear phishing: Essentially creating fake login pages targeted at individuals to encourage them to enter their usernames and passwords. The fact that a political campaign could have potentially been derailed by the use of convincing phishing pages is a cause of great concern.
Recent political experiences mask more worrying concerns around the digitization of finances. Eighty-five percent of all transactions globally (and 40 percent in the US) are carried out using cash. The American figure suggests that with time, other countries will follow suit. All kinds of human activity grow more vulnerable with increased digitization, and as hackers and cyber warfare grow more sophisticated.
Banks, stock exchanges, oil installations and other critical infrastructure have been hacked in recent years. It is highly likely that many of these small-scale attacks have been merely a prelude to more destabilizing ones. A determined attack on the Western financial system would likely disable stock markets, and bank balances — which are simply digital figures — could be erased.
Under the circumstances, the risk of economic paralysis is too great. Russian meddling based on subversion, media manipulation and forgery should be taken as a warning. Recent attacks must be considered efforts to probe for weaknesses and to test defenses. If foreign countries are cultivating troll farms for the purposes of destabilization, responsible states must invest heavily in diverting future attacks.
— Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid