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The Russian Hackers Who Didn’t Hack Anything

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: A shocking New York Times headline about Russian hackers and the 2016 presidential election doesn’t quite live up to the hype; another PAC with shady spending is discovered; an important argument about college education and what kind of people society values; and an interview about writing novels and cultural paranoia.

Russia Wanted to Hack Voting Machines! . . . But They Did Not.

The New York Times grabs us with a shocking headline and opening statement: “The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Thursday that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016, an effort more far-reaching than previously acknowledged and one largely undetected by the states and federal officials at the time.”

But by the fourth paragraph, we get these important details: “It concluded that while there was no evidence that any votes were changed in actual voting machines, ‘Russian cyberactors were in a position to delete or change voter data’ in the Illinois voter database. The committee found “no evidence that they did so.”

In the eighteenth paragraph: “That was of concern to the committee because testimony about election machines, which are disconnected from the internet, suggested the most efficient way to alter votes was with physical access to the machines or computers rather than programming them with ballots.” (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, no hacker in Moscow can reach across the World Wide Web and alter what your ballot says. Even if they somehow managed to alter the data being tabulated in some local or state government system that is connected to the Internet, a recount would reveal the discrepancy. In fact, because most local polling places tabulate their results and send them in, a discrepancy in any central tabulating system would be noticed instantly. “I reported that we had 100 votes for Smith and 50 votes for Jones, and your data is saying our results are ten votes for Smith and 140 votes for Jones.”

When the committee states that hackers could access voter data, they presumably mean voter registration information, not votes. Having a Russian hacker go into your local county elections board system and alter your name, address, etc. would indeed create headaches. But that’s the sort of action where the more you do it, the easier it is for authorities to figure out what’s going on. If a polling place has dozens or hundreds of people coming in, and all their addresses were changed in the system recently, but they insist they haven’t changed anything, election officials will figure out something’s wrong pretty fast. (And this is why provisional ballots are an important concept.)

The Times writes, “The deletions were so substantial that even the committee’s recommendations for the future were not spared: The section heading on the final recommendation read ‘Build a Credible,’ but the remainder of the heading, and two paragraphs that follow, were blacked out.”

Allow me to speculate: A factor that separates cyber-warfare from traditional warfare is that it’s much easier to hide the perpetrator of a cyber-attack. The concept of deterrence is a lot harder to enact in cyber-warfare, because it’s tougher to be 100 percent certain that if you hit back, you’re hitting the right guy. As I noted back in 2017, It’s the deniability and ability to “mask” the origin of cyber-attacks that make them particularly tempting for malefactors, rogue states, and hostile superpowers alike. It’s a chance to sucker-punch your foe anonymously. Way back when, one of those cyber-security experts described cyber-warfare by asking “how do you win a boxing match when you’re blindfolded?” The answer was “you put the boxer in a suit of armor.” The only real way to win the fight is to harden your defenses until they’re impenetrable and no one wants to step into the ring with you.

What did the committee want that had to be credible but also had to remain classified? My guess would be “Build a credible cyber-deterrent.” As those of you who paid attention to my presentation in Austria know, the U.S. government has demonstrated an ability to shut down attacks before they start if they know where they’re coming, presumably through the Pentagon’s Cyber Command or the NSA or both:

Before Election Day 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Cyber Command announced that it would be sending text messages, emails, and pop-ups to Russian operatives meddling in the midterm elections, informing them that their actions were being monitored — sort of a “shot across their bow” to signal that we know who they are, what they’re doing, and how to find them.

Then, on Election Day 2018, the professional trolls at Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg showed up for work and could not access the Internet. At all. For two days, they couldn’t log on to any of their social-media accounts. 

What happened in 2016 was bad, and the scale of the crime should not be understated. But you didn’t see the same mischief in 2018 in part because it’s hard to launch the same sneak attack twice. If the U.S. knows where hacking and cyber-warfare is coming from — say, 55 Savushkina Street in Saint Peterburg, to pick a random address — they can shut down the Internet access at the site. Or, if they wanted to send an even stronger message, turn off the power in the neighborhood.

Great, Another Big PAC with Questionable Spending Habits

Remember last month’s observation that one of the great impediments to the conservative cause was scam PACs, or groups that promise to use donations to fight for conservative candidates and policies and then keep most of the money for themselves or dump it into additional fundraising?

ProPublica appears to have found another one.

The PAC, called the Conservative Majority Fund, has raised nearly $10 million since mid-2012 and continues to solicit funds to this day, primarily from thousands of steadfast contributors to conservative causes, many of them senior citizens. But it has made just $48,400 in political contributions to candidates and committees. Public records indicate its main beneficiaries are the operative Kelley Rogers, who has a history of disputes over allegedly unethical fundraising, and one of the largest conservative fundraising companies, InfoCision Management Corp., which charged millions of dollars in fundraising fees.

. . .The PAC said it was hiring investigators to press the case that Obama was ineligible to be president.

That message struck gold: $2.8 million poured in from more than 30,000 donors during the five months between July and December of that year alone. To kick off its campaign, the PAC paid $371,000 in August 2012 for a television ad that briefly aired on cable television and urged viewers to call the PAC, where they would be solicited for donations. After August, it ran no television ads and made no expenditures for anything other than fundraising.

On the day after Obama won reelection, the PAC changed its call scripts, telling donors that Obama’s “immediate plans are to pardon the terrorists at Guantanamo, give full amnesty to illegal aliens and give the United Nations the authority to tax Americans,” according to a fundraising script in the emails. There is no evidence that any of those plans were under consideration by the Obama administration. Donors were told that the PAC had hired a team of investigators and lawyers to press for impeachment. There is no evidence in FEC records that it ever did. 

For those who reflexively think, “this has to be some liberal smear,” ProPublica states, “Rogers and InfoCision did not respond to repeated requests for interviews — including lists of detailed questions.” You can’t get mad at someone for not reporting your side of the story when you refuse to give them your side of the story. And for those who think there must be some sort of legitimate explanation for those FEC numbers. . . those involved didn’t provide any!

Whom Do We Value and Celebrate in American Society in 2019?

In the latest issue of the magazine, Charlie Cooke insightfully dissects a viewpoint that is pervasive but unspoken, and in serious need of a culture-wide reevaluation:

The presumptions that underpin our present scramble for diplomas are as follows: that it would be a good thing if more people went to college; that going to college is the best — or perhaps the only — way to get ahead in life, leading, as it supposedly does, to automatic improvement of one’s lot; that, irrespective of what it does to the job market and to productivity, our society is materially improved by having more people with paper degrees in their possession; and that, in consequence of all of these things, it represents a major scandal that people who wish to educate themselves further are obliged to pay to do so. Alongside these presumptions are a set of implications that, while rarely acknowledged openly, are present nevertheless: that those who do not go to college have in some way failed — or that they have been failed; that every time a person declines to attend college, he is making America a little stupider on aggregate; and, by extension, that people who lack college degrees but nevertheless are successful are not demonstrating an alternative way of living their lives so much as muddling through as best they can absent vital instruction from their superiors…

If we reach a point at which our elites — almost all of whom have college degrees, and almost all of whom credit those degrees as the reason for their success — begin to disdain and dismiss those who do not have degrees, we will reach a point at which we have created a de facto cultural underclass.

It is not at all obvious that the average liberal-arts graduate is more educated, more capable, more useful, and more rounded than is, say, the average electrician.

In 2015, truckers who worked for private fleets made a median income of $73,000 — a little more than the median income for Americans with master’s degrees. Which . . . well, which makes our cultural monomania seem a little odd — especially when one considers that, per the American Trucking Association, there is currently a shortage of truck drivers to the tune of around 60,000 positions. 

Take the time to read the whole thing.

ADDENDA: The awesome Christian Toto interviewed me about Between Two Scorpions, and I mentioned the first hints of what comes next for our team of spies, the misfits dismissed as the “Dangerous Clique.”

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