Google exec sees ‘chaos’ as desired outcome for election meddlers

For a country like Russia, it doesn’t really matter if its Web-based attempts to meddle in other countries’ elections deliver victory to the candidates of its choice, so long as they trigger chaos on the receiving end, an executive from Google says.

“We overestimate how much they care about the outcome of the election, versus making us confused,” said Jared Cohen, who heads Google’s technology incubator, Jigsaw. “Chaos is a perfectly good outcome to a country that understands the physical limits to what it can do or be seen to be doing.”

Cohen added that the likely point of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election and upcoming ones in Europe is “deterrence.”

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, likely cares most about seeing to it that the U.S. and other adversaries don’t try to intervene in his country’s next major election, coming up in 2018, he said during an afternoon talk at Duke University.

Cohen’s appearance at the university was the latest fruit of the “American Grand Strategy” speaker series sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the talk’s cyber-warfare focus couldn’t have better timed.

It came just a day after James Comey, director of the FBI, told Congress the agency is investigating whether there was collusion between the Russians and the campaign of new U.S, President Donald Trump.

Cohen may work for Google now, but he spent the decade from 2006 to 2016 in the U.S. Department of State, as a policy-planning aide to former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

His current employer is on the front lines of the issue.

On Tuesday, Jigsaw rolled out a “protect your election” software package that media organizations, activist groups and election monitors can use to shield themselves against denial-of-service attacks and other common forms of Internet mischief.

But Cohen acknowledged that in the past he’d “underestimated the implications of bulk leaking” like the document dumps Wikileaks has deployed against the U.S. government and, last year, the presidential campaign of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Also prominent in the election-meddling toolbox are tactics like “fake news” and the use of “patriotic trolling campaigns” to “bully the living daylights” out of a government’s opponents, he said.

Of those two, Cohen rated trolling the greater threat, and by contrast put the possibility of a country’s actually hacking vote totals farther down the list of potential risks. Not that he considers that good news, mind.

“There are two types of [election] hack,” he said. “The one we understand is the hack of systems and infrastructure. The type we don’t understand as well is the hacking of the conversation and the hacking of the discourse. That’s what the meddling in our election looked like.”

Nor are Russians necessarily the only practitioners of the art, he said, name-checking Turkey as a place where trollery has become a weapon President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and its supporters use against journalists.

Think of targets being hit with “several dozen rape threats a minute, on different platforms that each look real and are each aggressive in a different way,” Cohen said, adding that it’s psychologically devastating to be on the receiving end of such attacks, to the point it “gets you off the battlefield.”

And given the increasing ubiquity of digital technology, such weapons are increasingly available to countries that have strong Internet infrastructure and traditions of developing computer-science talent, he said.

Beyond the obvious players like the U.S., China, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany, they’re opening new avenues for countries like Israel, Iran, Singapore and Estonia to punch well above their weight, he said.

Estonia, for example, may be next door to Russian and only have about 1.3 million people, but its software developers have written personal-identification and health-records programs that are so ahead of the class that their counterparts in China and India look to them for help.

The issue is that being a trade good, software’s readily purchasable, even on black markets that criminal organizations, terrorists and even some governments have to rely on, he said.

And with Russia having shown the way, “if they can do it, anyone can do it,” Cohen said, adding the world is “seeing seeing the waging of digital insurgencies.”

It’s also entirely possible for even nominal allies to battle each other in the cyber arena because “it’s simply too tempting” for being easier to get away with than traditional types of warfare, he said.

Cohen didn’t see that putting traditional warfare off the table, though. He said he suspects Clinton would’ve retaliated against Russia in the cyber arena had she won last year’s election, and that a potential counter from Putin would’ve been “maybe grabbing another city in the Ukraine.”

A country’s leaders, in this sort of conflict, have to ask themselves “if you’re ready for this chess game six or seven moves out,” he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg