Here in the aftermath of one of the most contentious and divisive elections in modern memory, we can reflect on several firsts for our country. Among those is the first hacking of a presidential candidate’s campaign and affiliated national committee by a potentially government sponsored foreign hacking group. There is little doubt that the targeted attacks of the Clinton campaign originated in Russia, and that they were government sponsored. There is also little doubt as to the reasoning behind the attacks. President Elect Trump made numerous comments along the campaign trail that appear to reflect a more amenable perspective on the Russians. It is pretty clear that Putin viewed Trump as the preferable choice in our election.
Fast forward to this month, and it would appear as though Russian hackers have moved on to the next target group: academics and think tanks. Given the important role that think tanks play in Washington policy making and geopolitical understanding, it stands to reason that our global rivals would want to now know what information their newly elected executive is being fed. It is no secret that think tanks like Rand and Brookings provide much of the background and analysis that our policy makers then use to make major decisions. Hacking these organizations give these foreign groups access to information, but also a means to distribute misinformation while posing as a substantiated source.
Think tanks have been used to influence policy on behalf of big business in the past, and will likely continue to do so. They represent excellent tools for decision makers who are pulled in numerous directions. When you can’t be an expert on everything, you rely on the perspectives of your trusted experts. In many cases, this is where the think tank fits in. In an administration which may, in large part, be more inexperienced in several arenas than its predecessors, these organizations may yet have a larger role to play. What better way to sway decisions in your favor? It’s worked before for others, why wouldn’t it work for a foreign government?
That is potentially the most important takeaway from the hacking story. Not only are they accessing data, they are infiltrating networks and gaining access to official emails, databases, and information portals. When everything is vulnerable, can anything be trusted? First, our election was influenced by foreign hacking. Now, it’s the very decisions made by our elected leaders. What’s next?