The Tech Threat Matrix: Disinformation, Cybersecurity, and Geopolitics with Glenn Gerstell, former NSA General Counsel

In the latest episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, we interview Glenn Gerstell, who as General Counsel, was the top lawyer at the National Security Agency between 2015 and 2020. We begin the conversation by getting Glenn’s thoughts on why he believes that online disinformation is a national security threat, why cyber-propelled disinformation is very different from the spread of ‘old-fashioned’ propaganda, and whether the 2020 Election’s disinformation was primarily bolstered by Russia or domestic actors. Glenn outlines approaches that we can take to address disinformation, and provides his own views on Section 230. We then move on into the SolarWinds hack and broader issues around cyber-espionage, and what the state of U.S. cyber-security is. We close out the conversation on the topic of grappling with privacy amidst concerns about domestic terror threats, and the clear lines that are drawn with regards to how the NSA conducts surveillance abroad. Glenn ends by talking about why the Intelligence Community needs to adapt, and how we can rethink our idea of what ‘national security’ is.

You can check out more of Glenn’s work here.

On disinformation:

“When we have a situation in which due to disinformation, online disinformation, we’re basically talking about cyber propelled online disinformation, where we have a situation in which at least as a recent polling, some significant percentage of people still question the legitimacy of the last presidential election. Apparently, more Republicans than Democrats, but whatever the number is, it apparently is, depending on which poll you read somewhere between 10% to potentially 30% of the people question the legitimacy of the last presidential election. That can’t be healthy for democracy, that can’t be good for our ability to come together to solve the many pressing problems we have.”

“So there are two areas in which online disinformation, spread both domestically and by foreign adversaries, greatly affects our national well being. And if that’s not a definition of national security, then I don’t know what is.”

On lessons of disinformation from the NSA:

“During the last election, to get to that specific question, during the last election in 2016, our nation was caught flat footed. We were the victim of a very significant, serious, sustained campaign by the Russians to interfere in our elections, using some tools available to them online, mostly through Facebook and Twitter. All of this was documented in a bipartisan five-volume study of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.”

“When it came time for the 2020 elections, which the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have others have said we’re the safest in our history in terms of freedom from online foreign influence, and Florida foreign interference. I think we should feel pretty good about it. We didn’t see any evidence of anyone changing any vote totals anyone getting involved in altering the balloting, the tabulation of ballots, etc. There was still some, some misinformation spread online from foreign countries as well as domestically. And in some ways, perhaps the domestic problem is, is one that is more acute right now than the foreign one.”

On the 2020 election:

“Russia was still involved, and they still had some attempts at spreading both misinformation and disinformation in the 2020 election, no sign that they sought to get involved in interfering, as opposed to influencing interfering in election machinery. But it looks like most of the researchers who’ve studied social media and the and the general question of online disinformation have concluded that the disinformation that existed around the 2020 elections was mostly domestically produced.”

“The fact of the matter is that disinformation works when it falls on receptive ears. If you if you aren’t inclined to believe something, if you aren’t already suspicious of the Democrats, for example, then that note, the allegation that they’re democrats are running a child sex ring isn’t going to resonate with you. But if you really think that Democrats are evil people, well, well, maybe you might be more prone to accept that.

On foreign threats in the 2020 elections:

“I think our foreign adversaries concluded that the risk of getting caught in interfering with our democratic election machinery is not worth it to them.”

On election infrastructure:

“I think it’s important that we have local control of election machinery.”

“So maybe it’s a little inefficient, but I think it balances the needs of our American federal system. And I do not view that the structure will be an impediment to our getting a high quality cybersecurity in our election system.”

On a solution for disinformation:

“Everybody, by now has heard these debates over section 230 of the communications decency Act, which basically gives many of the social gives the social media platforms a lie of a freedom from liability for the content posted on them. It also gives them the freedom to take down accounts and not be sued. And many people have said that, that that section of the law, while it made good sense of the dawn of the internet age to help foster the internet no longer makes sense now when the internet is rife with hate speech, disinformation, etc. And, and we can do a better job online. So I think part of it is maybe amending section 230 in some in some reasonable way we could we could spend more time on that.”

“It’s no surprise that we have a lot of people who were very disappointed that Vice President Pence didn’t personally alter the electoral college vote. And if you had taken your civics lessons, you’d know that that was constitutionally impossible. But if you didn’t, and had no knowledge of how government worked and print the president, President Trump said it would be important for the vice president to nullify the electoral college vote your answer might be well, yeah, sure. So civics education has a huge role to play. I’m obviously oversimplifying it, but there are many factors here.”

On Section 230:

“With so much misinformation and disinformation spread online, and to go back to my earlier comment, it has become a national security problem for us to have information about elections and the state of our political society and the health of our country with a pandemic.”

“It makes no sense to have to allow a system to exist where someone can get away with saying, I’m sorry, I’m just not responsible for that someone else’s problem. That doesn’t make sense to me and in our democracy.”

On finding disinformation:

“I think most people, if they’re careful, are able to spot the difference. And to their credit, finally, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, others are now finally over the past largely last year, really taking great efforts to use their own automated systems to take down fake accounts to strike out disinformation when it is online.”

On the SolarWinds Hack:

“Russia took advantage of a normal update in solar wind software, solar winds, manufacturers, some software that is used for internet management by many, many, many companies that has 10s of 1000s of customers in government and an industry throughout the United States. And it injected some malware into their ordinary updates.”

On the implications of privacy and domestic sort of surveillance:

“But we could take two way sharing of information, do this in a very rapid way. have automated systems, look at these, these what’s called threat intelligence, these signs of compromised signs of infection, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and then very quickly, spit out the answer disseminated widely so that individual computer owners will be able to perhaps even in an automated way, reconfigure their firewalls to block what’s now been identified as malware or malicious website. Cloud providers can stop instantly stop connections to that malicious website.”

On government surveillance:

“We have some very, very important principles in this country established by the Fourth Amendment as it’s been interpreted over the 200 odd years by the by the courts, to draw very, very clear lines about the authority of government relative to American citizens. The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens, whether they’re located in the United States or overseas. And certainly at NSA, we were very careful to make sure our intelligence surveillance was focused on foreigners, not Americans.”

“I want to be very clear with this suggesting that we in any way, shape or form weaken the Fourth Amendment by even one molecule. But I do think we equally need to recognize that we do have a challenge in the United States. And I think we’re going to need to confront that in terms of domestic terrorism and domestic disinformation in a way that’s consistent with the Fourth Amendment. I think we’ve got some tools to do so. But it’s going to require some hard work.”

On addressing new national security challenges:

“And so the pandemic showed us that we now need to have better intelligence about public health crises. The pandemic also showed us what happens when international trade and supplies, shipping and logistics are disrupted. And we saw how vulnerable our country was whether it was you whether it was what we for a number of weeks, we couldn’t get toilet paper on our supermarket shelves to something far more significant, which is right now we’re running a shortage of semiconductor chips, which is affecting the production of automobiles in Detroit.”

“The pandemic illustrated these global dependencies that we all sort of knew about but really became so manifest when there were disruptions in these global dependencies. So I think this shows us that our national well-being due to largely due to technology is now so globally intertwined with so many interdependencies that we can’t just say, ‘Oh, national security is worrying about Russia and North Korean missiles, or Chinese submarines.’”

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