Here's what keeps Obama's former cyber policy advisor up at night

Key Points
  • R. David Edelman, a former advisor to President Obama on technology and cyber issues worries about what Russia may do in the future.
  • He says the U.S. adversary could use AI as a tool to spread misinformation.
R. David Edelman, former Special Assistant to President Obama for Economic & Technology Policy.
Source: The White House

For months, the world has been captivated by the slow drip of information about Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

R. David Edelman, a former advisor to President Obama on technology and cyber issues isn't as worried about what the Russians did in the past as he is about what the state-actor could do in the future.

Dr. Edelman says the current news environment and emerging technology could create the perfect conditions for Russia to mislead the American public with misinformation.

"It is worth thinking — and perhaps worrying — about the intersection of Russia-style information operations and artificial intelligence," said Edelman. "Too often, people simply believe what they see online, especially if it confirms an existing bias. And new research is showing just how easy it is to impersonate a voice, an image, or even a video of a well-known official," he said.

The former cyber policy director imagines a fake broadcast being accepted as truth.

"I think in 5 years it will be very difficult to tell truth from fiction. Video forgery, audio forgery, deep learning provides tools that state and non-state actors could use to create confusion," said Edelman.

While malicious Russian cyber activity in nothing new to the U.S., the tactics used have become more sophisticated over the years. In 2014, hackers thought to be working for the Russian government broke into an unclassified White House computer system, according to reports. Then, there was the hacking of the State department email system which was described by law enforcement and congressional officials briefed on the investigation as the "worst ever" intrusion against a federal agency. In 2016, cyber hacking activities were aimed at Democratic party groups including Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and his emails were released on WikiLeaks as part of an "influence campaign" directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence report.

"What we saw in the election hacking was simply an extension of a longstanding series of aggressive actions Russia has undertaken throughout modern history — usually within their sphere of influence, in the region to sow discord to favor the political preferences and to ultimately discredit the West," he said.

As Obama's cyber policy lead Edelman was on the team that established the U.S.-Russia "red phone" designed to de-escalate cyber crises. The phone was used by Obama to warn Putin of potential consequences if Russian interference didn't stop. "While we did find ways to work together, to try to prevent crises or miscalculations, there was no point in the last nine years where U.S. experts regarded the Russians as a friendly actor," Edelman said.

The election meddling was in line with Russia's policy goal of destabilizing the Western order, he said. Still, Edelman thinks the Trump candidacy may have led them to become bolder as time went on. "They saw the potential to really shake things up," he said.

Since the Russian security services didn't hack the election in the sense of changing votes from one to the other, the narrative around the cyber intrusion should change, Edelman said.

Setting boundaries

Edelman also explained the thinking behind the Obama administration's decision to impose sanctions on the Russians.

After the Cold War Washington and Moscow developed a vocabulary for punishment short of escalation to all-out war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with President Barack Obama
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Kremlin via Reuters

"[The state-actors] learned through backchannels, quiet conversations, proxy actions, et cetera to express displeasure and try to prevent actions that crossed the line," he said. "One of those things is sanctions and we just saw the US house voted to circumscribe the Trump administration if they were to try to relax Russian sanctions," said Edelman. It is also possible that the United States made other attempts to punish Moscow out of view.

"What you've also seen over the last few years is a concerted effort by the United States and others to define what is acceptable behavior in this space. For instance, the United States declared publicly that state-sponsored cyber theft of intellectual property for commercial gain was off-limits — and worked to change the calculus for countries sponsoring that theft," he said.

As the U.S. faces new threats from adversaries such as North Korea which hacked Sony and Russia following its election information operation, the tactics used have and will continue to evolve, said Edelman. What's at stake is the complete erosion of trust on a domestic and international level, he said.

And now it's up to the Trump administration to ensure that doesn't happen. "Ignoring history, withdrawing from international leadership on cyber issues, forsaking our existing coalitions — all of those play into the hands of adversaries trying to rewrite the international rules in their own favor."