Russian Hacking – The challenge of being objective

It’s hard to be objective in today’s post-truth world. But we have to try.

US intelligence officials have recently alleged that Russian actors influenced the 2016 election through hacking individuals and institutions, under the supervision of President Putin.

The allegation is that while the intrusion began with a general intent to undermine the credibility of US democracy, it evolved into a specific effort to favour Trump, whose campaign rhetoric included a conciliatory relationship with Russia.Russian President, Vladimir Putin

The Russian foreign minister has dismissed the allegation of Putin’s involvement. Before the election, President Obama had formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber-attacks against US political organisations. He has recently ordered a review into foreign interference in the 2016 election.

British officials are now alleging that Russia is waging a ‘campaign’ of propaganda and unconventional warfare against the UK. They are taking it seriously, their head of the armed forces has said:

“We need to pay more attention to counter-espionage and counter-intelligence to protect our hard-won research, protect our industry and protect our competitive advantage”.

It will be of some interest to see what information comes to light on this issue for the global public. But it is probably also worth us all keeping a grip.

What the times have wrought

In the electronic age, cyber-intrusion is now the norm, as are drones and lethal unmanned weapons systems (LAWS) in military combat. Similarly, hacking is now a new method of commercial espionage. And cyber-intrusion has crept into our homes – just this week Yahoo announced that 1 billion private accounts were hacked and information stolen, back in 2013.

As we plunge into the digital age, we have to recognise that the bad will accompany the good. As with all weapons systems or other developments, the technology runs ahead of the law. There has been, will be, no stopping the technology; the challenge is for society to keep up, with principles of behaviour, legal limitations, and legitimate enforcement.

FBI Director, James B. Comey. Credit: Brookings Institution https://www.flickr.com/photos/96739999@N05/16389996032

FBI Director, James B. Comey. Credit: Brookings Institution https://www.flickr.com/photos/96739999@N05/16389996032

The FBI engaged in an unnecessary public release about the Democratic candidate with an excruciating sense of timing – one week before the election.  Who needs malevolent foreign intelligence when you have your own investigatory service for political interference?

In 2013 the German Government expressed outrage over the discovery that US intelligence had an eavesdropping device in the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel, giving a whole new meaning to JFK’s famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ rhetoric. France and Italy expressed concern at reports of US surveillance of their communication networks.

It does not stop there; the NSA was doing the same thing to Brazil. President Rousseff cancelled a visit to Washington in response, stating:

“The illegal practices of intercepting the communications of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government constitute a grave threat to national sovereignty and individual rights and are incompatible with the democratic coexistence between friendly countries,”

Perhaps the US could retrieve the Brazilian statement of 2013, change the name, and forward it to Moscow.

What’s the difference?

Is there any difference between Russian intrusion in a US election, Chinese intrusion in a US corporation, and US intrusion in a German political office?  No.

The latter two might be seen as traditional espionage – all’s fair in love and war, and therefore politics and business. But interfering in an electoral outcome is not new.

US interest in domestic elections has been evident, over recent decades, in Chile, Nicaragua and Ukraine. In Chile, the president was murdered and the military leader installed, with US influence. The US imposed an illegal blockade of Nicaragua to influence the internal political struggle there.  Western interference in the aftermath of the election in Algeria in 1992 resulted in the winning party being denied office and a military leader being installed. There are other examples.UN flag

Intelligence services are inherently flawed, by definition.  What right, under the UN Charter with its principles of universal peace, non-interference in domestic affairs, and respect for the rule of law, do member states have to eavesdrop on each other’s head of state or candidate for that office?  Quite simply, none whatsoever. But the major powers do it all the same– to protect their ‘competitive advantage’.

What the Greens would do

New GCSB director, Andrew Hampton. Credit: stuff.co.nz

New GCSB director, Andrew Hampton. Credit: stuff.co.nz

New Zealand’s intelligence services have been undergoing a make-over, these past several years.  There is no doubt that a new generation of capable professionals are now leading the NZ agencies, making the trench-coat debacles of the past resemble Dad’s Army. The theoretical justification for intelligence has received an update as well – from national security to public protection.

It remains unassailable that espionage, human or electronic, foreign or domestic, diminishes privacy rights.  A trade-off is inevitable, but Green policy opposes the current structure and operations of the SIS and GCSB. It would abolish the latter and launch an inquiry into the former.  New Zealand should not align itself with any intelligence operations of the above kinds.

It is worth enquiring into allegations of hacking the electronic integrity of any institution, of any kind, anywhere in the world.  And it is worth an international treaty to govern the principles, the development of international law, and a response mechanisms to seek some form of equity and transparency.

But is not worth succumbing to a false national piety about the nature of international politics.