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.