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Cyberworld’s Impact upon Democratic Stability

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., draws upon her experience as a legislator and former CIA officer to explain cyberattacks and the impact of new technologies upon democracies.

Interview with Rep. Abigail Spanberger October 13, 2020 //   16 minute read

 Abigail Spanberger was elected to Congress from Richmond, Virginia in 2018. Before that, the Democratic lawmaker served as a CIA officer and federal postal inspector. The University of Virginia graduate’s experience earned her a spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in her first term.

Rep. Spanberger spoke with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager for the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, about cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and the impact of new technologies upon democracies. She also shared her views on the responsibilities of social media companies and how lawmakers should stay abreast of technologies to anticipate how they will affect our economy and larger society. 

What do we know now about cyberattacks on the U.S. during recent election cycles, including anything about this year's elections? For example, where do the attacks most frequently originate?

Major state actors continue to recognize or look for potential vulnerabilities that exist in the United States infrastructure. Some of the major actors that potentially could pose threats would be the typical suspects: the governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

There are well-documented efforts by foreign governments to breach American technology. It’s notable and important that there's no evidence that they've previously been able to change any voting tallies. That was clearly laid out in the Mueller Report, for example. 

We have to recognize the level of capability that exists with state actors and non-state actors alike. In certain countries, and I'll use China as an example, the relationship that exists between the government and companies, and the relationship between companies and the military and intelligence apparatus, is very intertwined.

We have to recognize the level of capability that exists with state actors and non-state actors alike. In certain countries, and I'll use China as an example, the relationship that exists between the government and companies, and the relationship between companies and the military and intelligence apparatus, is very intertwined.

What could be a vulnerability may not explicitly be coming from a foreign government or from a foreign country. But because of different privacy relationships, or different privacy laws and relationships between intelligence and military sources, and ostensibly private companies, they're all vulnerabilities to our networks and to our privacy, whether as individuals or businesses.

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You did mention that, as far as we know, the attacks have not changed any voter tallies, but do we know what these attackers are going after? Is it to change tallies? Voting records? Voter registration databases? Something else?

So far, we have seen efforts to see what vulnerabilities exist, where attackers can get into various databases, where they can potentially have access. I'll leave it up to the intelligence community to push forward with what might be the actual plans and intentions, or goals and intentions that would lead a foreign nation to want to see what our vulnerabilities are. But I'll speak as a former intelligence officer: Recognizing some of the weaknesses of your counterparts or adversaries is important in understanding weaknesses.

For example, with the great advances that come with technology, there are also unique vulnerabilities. As a member of Congress, I have focused on whether we have the ability to ensure and verify that our elections are safe. Being able to do that with paper ballot backups is important.

When we hear about these attacks, they are often associated with Russia. But is China an equal threat in terms of attacks on U.S. election infrastructure? If so, what is China after?

Russia is more of a destabilizing actor, whereas China has been working to become a real power. We see that through their economic initiatives, such as their investments in Africa and Latin America. Many purport that the Chinese government’s goal is to demonstrate its strength and power relative to a country as powerful and as historically important as the United States.

Russia is more of a destabilizing actor, whereas China has been working to become a real power. We see that through their economic initiatives, such as their investments in Africa and Latin America. Many purport that the Chinese government’s goal is to demonstrate its strength and power relative to a country as powerful and as historically important as the United States.

What are the best ways to harden our defenses against these attacks? For example, how could an industry best equip itself against cyberattacks? And how could governments best respond, including state agencies that oversee elections?

The first thing is recognizing our vulnerabilities and being earnest about efforts by foreign governments and foreign actors to potentially undermine, embarrass, influence, or impact our society. That could be the strength of our economy, the occurrence of our elections, and the stakes that Americans have in those elections.

When you recognize that fact, you're able to contend with it in a meaningful way, such as a state requiring paper ballots or changing its type of voting machines. Or it could mean choosing technology that is less vulnerable to foreign hacking efforts.

Is 5G the new battleground of the cyber world? If so, how should liberal democracies respond?

5G is one of the new battlegrounds. The development of 5G technology in the United States is not just beneficial to us and the safety and security of U.S. information, it is also beneficial to our allies and security partners.

5G is one of the new battlegrounds. The development of 5G technology in the United States is not just beneficial to us and the safety and security of U.S. information, it is also beneficial to our allies and security partners.

The more that we can lead in the development of 5G technology, the better equipped we are to engage in a helpful and economically beneficial way with our European partners and other partners throughout the world that are interested in countering the same challenges. This is a straightforward way for us to strengthen our relationships with our allies, particularly when we’re juxtaposing our area of influence to that of nations like China.

You’re laying out some of the benefits of controlling the cyberworld. What are the challenges for the U.S. and other liberal democracies to control that space? 

We have underinvested in domestic innovation and connectivity. We were ahead of the curve with the development of the internet, from its origins in military projects. But as we have slowed our pace of development, particularly the development of networks, China has been pretty aggressive in filling that space. 

This should be a cautionary tale. Where the United States has been a leader on innovation, we should continue to look at the benefit of our forward-leaning innovation. Not just for the economic benefits that it might have across U.S. companies, and for job growth and economic growth, but also because it ensures that we are leading the world on technological advancements that are important within our borders and across the globe.

I am particularly concerned about the relationships that exist between some foreign governments and the intelligence services in their home country. What vulnerability exists within the systems they develop? 

Part of this is recognizing the need for resilience in terms of domestic production, development, and innovation. It also is about creating products that are more resilient to cyber foreign threats, including those from a foreign-developed technology with potential backdoors based on their relationships with foreign military or intelligence services.

Being a former CIA officer and now a member of Congress, could you talk about why you think it matters that Congress has oversight over intelligence matters, especially when it comes to any attacks on our election infrastructure?

It’s incredibly important that Congress has not just oversight over the intelligence community, but also access to the vital information that the intelligence community collects. I knew that it was my goal and duty and mission to get information that would help policy makers, the president, the military, and diplomats make informed decisions.

I find it deeply troubling that the Director of National Intelligence has said they will not do briefings before Congress as it relates to election threats and threats to our infrastructure. The whole purpose of providing intelligence is so that we can make good and informed decisions based on that intelligence.

In the absence of that intelligence, we basically have one arm tied behind our back. We are giving up a foundational piece of information that should inform how we view threats, react to threats, and even understand what threats exist.

If you're not accustomed to reading intelligence reports, or finished intelligence, there's a lot that could be unclear. Being able to talk to the absolute top experts in different areas is vital. 

As a former intelligence officer, I believe greatly in the value of oversight. It is valuable to have Congress question everything. It’s not always enjoyable, but it's important. When it comes to the classified nature of our intelligence community, if Congress isn't doing it, no one is doing it. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) offers potential for our economy, but it can come with some disruptions. What should liberal democracies do as they think through various new technologies like AI?

We are facing not just the growth of AI writ large, but the differences of where it can be used or not used. I represent a district that's predominantly suburban in population but predominantly rural in landmass. Across our district, we have significant challenges with broadband connectivity. I have many families, workers, business owners, and farmers in my district who cannot connect to the internet. 

When we look at some of the benefits that AI and advanced technologies can bring, especially in precision agricultural technology, I represent a whole host of folks who are unable to utilize those technologies. This impacts their production, and the income they're bringing home. So, I am looking at the division that exists between connected communities and unconnected communities.

Looking at the larger question of AI, legislators should focus on anticipating technological developments. Where will we be in three to five years? And how can we start making decisions at the federal, state, and local levels that ensures we're thinking about what this means for the economy in three, five, or 20 years? Jobs that we haven't even thought of will exist five to 10 years from now. 

Understanding where technology will be is important for how our high schools are training workers who might enter the job force as soon as they leave high school. Or how universities, junior colleges, or training programs are adapting to the opportunities that exist now or are starting to come online later.

As legislators, we need to think how we can lay the foundation so that this can be a driver of our economy. Is this a funding issue? An educational choice issue at the state and local level of how schools are pivoting, how are they implementing vocational training programs? Are they expanding into this realm utilizing AI with any significant effort? 

There are more questions than answers. But part of the next step is to ensure that lawmakers are listening to technologists about what's on the horizon and attempting to plan for those developments.

Circling back to disinformation, what role should social media companies play in alerting their consumers to the source of information or to the fact something may be misinformation? 

Social media companies have a tremendous responsibility. For too long, they have been able to classify themselves as just that, as social media companies. But millions of Americans and people worldwide get their information and their news from their social media accounts. 

It may link to an article written by the Washington Post, New York Times, or Richmond Times-Dispatch. But the news that is filtering their way is because of the algorithms, because of who their friends are, because of what they post about, because of what they like on social media.

That siloing of what gets presented to them, based upon their established preferences, is highly problematic. This isn’t entertainment. It becomes their singular avenue of receiving news. That’s detrimental to our society's ability to agree and disagree with one another.

As a society, and lawmakers as well, we should recognize that social media companies are not entertainment providers. Fifteen years ago, you shared on Facebook baby pictures and what you did on the weekend. It is now a primary source of information for people across the country. 

There's a tremendous responsibility social media companies have with the use of their platforms for the provision of disinformation. We have seen it. The Mueller Report gives in detail how folks in Russia used social media to create and plan events in the United States. Americans showed up to these events, because there was such an ability to create a movement on the ground from Russia using this platform. 

From posts to news articles, social media is impacting the way the American people are consuming information. If you share an article from a reputable news site on a social media platform, or if you share an article that is a propaganda site, it looks the same. For those who think of social media as entertainment, the level of discernment may not be there on a Saturday morning, or when you are taking a short break from work on a Tuesday afternoon.

Social media platforms and companies need to recognize their power and use it far more responsibly. Some have taken steps, but their business model and algorithms are set up in a way that you are siloing people.

One of the greatest threats to a democracy anywhere is the inability to question, the inability to debate ideas, the inability to be faced with differing opinions, and the inability to know how to engage with someone of a differing opinion. The strength of our system historically has been the push and pull of ideas. When people are siloed off into extreme edges, it becomes that much harder for there to be any sort of lively debate, let alone productive debate.