21st January 2018

From Russia Without Love: Putin, Cybersecurity, and the West

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Whenever people walk in on me watching Vladimir Putin on Russia Today (RT) and see my notebook full of Russian handwriting, suspicious looks are often given, and questions usually arise – including, occasionally, what government I’m working for.

Fear not. I’ve never participated in a high-stakes poker game, nor do I carry around a syringe of polonium in case someone betrays the motherland. However, when I go on to mention that I specifically look at ‘new’ forms of power, such as energy and cybersecurity, certain suspicions can often be rekindled.

putin trump
[“Vladimir Putin is their spy” – Tensions have escalated considerably since the election of Donald Trump in 2016]
‘Russia Today’ – a broadcasting agency controlled by the Kremlin in Moscow – is not far from the centre of a storm that has been raging for over a year regarding alleged Russian interference in electoral processes in the democratic, global ‘West’. To us, we would seldom compound the dulcet and euphonious tones of Morgan Freeman with geopolitical tension; that is, not until the phrase ‘we are at war’, reverberated across the internet and social media platforms in mid-late 2017. At first glance, such statements may appear to be the classic sensationalist exaggeration we may expect from Hollywood. Yet, statements such as this aptly illustrate the atmosphere of paranoia that has recently gripped much American, and to a lesser extent (albeit still noticeable) European media coverage of Russian aggression in cyberspace.  I would challenge anyone in the United Kingdom to pick up a national newspaper that fails to mention the words ‘Russia’ and ‘cyber’ before you get to the sport section at the back – although even there, I perhaps wouldn’t rule it out.

For all its hyperbole though, the media does have a point. There are genuine tensions between liberal democracies in the ‘West’ and Russia over many issues. The seizure of Crimea in 2014 was met with widespread condemnation and sanctions from both sides. Russian involvement in Syria has strained relations further; and, more recently the issue of cybersecurity and ‘interference’ has perhaps become the most prolific. In order to begin the essential process of resolving our differences, a question that we must therefore consider, is whether or not understanding and cooperation is at all possible between our two regions, despite popular perceptions and hostilities.

A good place to start would be in recognizing that the term cybersecurity is a blanket term that covers several aspects: security of infrastructure and data safety, as well as a term we would call ‘information-psychological security’. Traditionally, our understanding of cybersecurity in Europe and North America has been quite narrow, relating primarily to data safety and security of critical infrastructure. Concerns have tended not to stray beyond issues such as the WannaCry cyber attack on the NHS last year. Indeed, the terms ‘hackers’, ‘malware’, and ‘cyber-piracy’ have become a feature of common parlance in our society.

[Spreading disinformation? An advert for RT on the Underground]
However, for Russia (and other non-democratic states) the term cybersecurity pertains to a broader set of matters. Here, issues of data safety and cyber piracy are coupled with strong concerns over ‘information-psychological’ security, which implies security of a governing regime from potentially hostile sources of information, and propaganda. The fear is often that these can be used to undermine a regime and foster social and political instability.

It is through investigating these differences that we can start to understand why it is that Russia and the West clash so frequently in this domain. The Western position tends to privilege transparency in the context of the web, including freedom of speech and association, privacy, and free flows of information. Such positions, which inevitably involve the erosion of global borders via digital technologies, are seen as challenging to states such as Russia where the dominating view is more conservative. For Russia (or those ruling Russia) concerns about Western ‘dominance’ over their cyberspace are deeply threatening when viewed in the context of security of information. So whereas the philosophical foundation of Western actions has a focus on the individual – that is, you and I – the Russian system is more conservative with the state at its core. We see a clash between an ‘individual’ focus in the West and a ‘state’ focus in Russia.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects about the recent atmosphere of paranoia and media frenzy is that our understanding in Western democracies of what it means to be ‘secure in cyberspace’ appears to be broadening too. We are now quick to recognize the spreading of ‘disinformation’ – often by Russian twitter bots or news agencies such as RT – along with attempts by hackers to pinch our bank details. So interestingly, our understanding of cybersecurity looks as though it may be becoming as broad as Russia’s, given that we perceive this ‘disinformation’ to be aimed at undermining faith in our political systems or influencing election results. For an actor like Russia, undermining the unity of the global ‘West’ through these means can therefore be seen as an effective way reduce West’s strength and power – cue Morgan Freeman and the tabloid press.

However, although we may argue that liberal and conservative mindsets are fundamentally different in some respects, they converge in many others. It would be overly pessimistic to say that the Western and Russian positions are incompatible, and there is hope that the two sides can cooperate and build relationships of trust that are badly needed.  We have seen that cyber is a broad concept, seen here to cover two key areas.  A less troublesome starting point would be to address a problem that both sides face equally, and can often be depoliticized – namely, threats to data and infrastructure security. Combating online anonymity and cross border economic fraud, cyber terrorism, and hacker attacks require shared efforts and joint initiatives that could provide promising avenues of dialogue.

A way out from the current impasse between Russia and the West therefore comes through differentiating between the different aspects covered by the term cybersecurity and identifying common areas of concern upon which we can build. If our two areas can learn to trust one another, the case for spies and espionage may become as needless as some of the media commentary we have seen .




– Oliver Woodhall

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