Can Facebook and Harvard save U.S. elections with Defending Digital Democracy?


Harvard has launched a major new project called “Defending Digital Democracy” designed to overcome election hacking and protect the U.S. democratic process.  Is it enough to make up for Executive Office skepticism and inaction?

defending digital democracyA fresh initiative aimed at information sharing about election threats and dubbed Defending Digital Democracy has the financial support of Facebook and the academic muscle of Harvard behind it. Will the project succeed where similar initiatives have failed?

There is a widespread belief among Americans – with the notable exception of POTUS hard core supporters – that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 Presidential election. The veracity and/or extent of that belief is currently under investigation.

Congress has responded by mandating sanctions against Russian organizations and businessmen thought to be involved but — perhaps because of the President’s often expressed skepticism–the response at the Executive level has been weak and nonchalant. Yesterday, the Senate went one step further and imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia. Many concerned Americans believe that the lackadaisical reaction by the Executive is an encouragement for the Russians, and possibly other foreign actors, to try influence elections in 2018 and 2020.

Ex-White House cyber security officer Jason Healey, now at Columbia University, was recently quoted as saying “I see no dynamics of deterrence.” That point is underscored by the departure at the end of July of Chris Painter, the official responsible for coordinating U.S. diplomacy on cyber security. No replacement has been named and the future of the position is up in the air.

On 19 July and backed by a $500,000 initial grant from Facebook, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School launched a new, bipartisan initiative called the Defending Digital Democracy (DDD) Project. The project will be co-led by Robby Mook, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, and Matt Rhoades, Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager.

The hope is that creating a unique and bipartisan team comprised of top-notch political operatives and leaders in the cyber and national security world, the project will be able to to identify and recommend strategies, tools, and technology to protect democratic processes and systems from cyber and information attacks.

DDD’s specific goals are

  • Developing solutions to share important threat information with technology providers, governments, and political organizations;
  • Providing election administrators, election infrastructure providers, and campaign organizations with practical “playbooks” to improve their cybersecurity;
  • Developing strategies for how the United States and other democracies can credibly deter hostile actors from engaging in cyber and information operations;
  • Assessing emerging technologies, such as blockchain, that may improve the integrity of systems and processes vital to elections and democracy;
  • Convening civic, technology, and media leaders to develop best practices that can shield our public discourse from adversarial information operations.

The project will be run by Eric Rosenbach, Co-Director of the Belfer Center and former Assistant Secretary of Defense. Prior to his July 2015 appointment as Chief of Staff to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Rosenbach served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security. Said Rosenbach:

Americans across the political spectrum agree that political contests should be decided by the power of ideas, not the skill of foreign hackers. Cyber deterrence starts with strong cyber defense–and this project brings together key partners in politics, national security, and technology to generate innovative ideas to safeguard our key democratic institutions.

Why Facebook?

Facebook’s participation in the project is hardly surprising.  The social media giant was the biggest battlefield for massive disinformation campaigns designed to sway political opinion during the 2016 election cycle, with hundreds of people and bots publishing hacked information and fake news and then falsely amplifying it. It is easy to see how Facebook is uniquely positioned to be at the center of this effort. In announcing the company’s $500,000 investment in the effort Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos said:

Our goal is to build an information sharing organization that includes political parties, campaigns, state and local election officials, and tech companies.

DDD’s information sharing unit will be modeled on similar efforts within the tech industry to share threat intelligence. Major tech companies like Google and Twitter use these kinds of partnerships to share information on terrorist threats, revenge porn, and child exploitation. Stamos says that means if one company detects an attack they can immunize others very quickly.

DDD plans to incorporate data not just from participating tech companies—executives from Google and the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike are also on the advisory board—but from state and local election officials as well.

My take

In the absence of any major Federal effort to fortify the country’s defenses against election attacks from foreign agents, the Defending Digital Democracy initiative—combined with state and local efforts to harden defenses–could play an outside role in assuring the integrity of upcoming elections.

We know that political campaigns will be attacked by agents seeking damaging information on their candidates. The invasion of the DNC and Hillary’s Clinton’s campaign manager’s servers demonstrates how difficult protecting information has become.

It is a racing certainty that hackers will, in the future, attempt to penetrate state and local polling places and voting equipment to more directly disrupt and/or falsify results. The President’s “fake news” trope notwithstanding, this is a major and serious danger for all Western democracies.

DDD’s biggest obstacle will be persuading states and local governments to participate with the project.

The Department of Homeland Security has struggled to convince state election officials to accept cybersecurity assistance from the federal government.  Political parties are also reluctant to share information.  Even after the DNC was informed of the breech of its servers, it still refused to allow the FBI or Homeland Security to help.

Facebook’s Stamos said he hopes that election officials who are wary of cooperating with the federal government will be more receptive to working with an independent group tied to Harvard and the tech industry. He said:

There is some resistance to anything that is imposed on state and local officials by the federal government. We are giving them the opportunity to work together.   We’ve had some excellent discussion with state and local election officials.

Facebook plans to host state and local election officials at its D.C. office later this year to discuss the information sharing organization, and launch the organization in early 2018.

For the sake of democracies everywhere, we better hope it is successful.

Image credit - via Belfer Center

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