Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaign to interfere in the last presidential election shook the nation’s confidence in the U.S. democratic process and rocketed cybersecurity into the mainstream of Washington’s political life.
Top questions now are not just when but how Russia will try to interfere in the approaching presidential election and whether it will be emboldened by the fact it has yet to face any significant consequences — and, of course, whether other U.S. adversaries will join the fray.
“Nobody has really punished them for it, and the reality is our adversaries are constantly pushing the envelope,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “They see what they can get away with and then they push the envelope again.”
If the election concludes without a security disaster that compromises the results or undermines public confidence in them, that will be a victory for solid planning, education and more than $900 million spent on digital election defense since 2016. If it’s disrupted, however, it will be a blow to faith in democracy and to the idea the United States can set any red lines in cyberspace that our adversaries won’t cross.
“If someone successfully interferes in our election again, it will call the entire security of the democratic enterprise into question,” said Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub.
“Another major episode of election interference could be spirit-shattering, particularly if it is seen as tipping the balance in a close election” and could cause a surge of “the kind of political cynicism common in corrupt states or flawed democracies,” said Jon Bateman, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Pentagon cybersecurity official.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are already warning that China and Iran are eager to undermine the 2020 contest. “What Russia did in 2016 turned a light bulb on in some other nations’ heads about what they could do,” said Robert Silvers, a former top DHS cybersecurity official who’s now an attorney at the law firm Paul Hastings. “It’s pretty cheap and relatively easy, so it’s going to get more crowded.”
Here are three other big cybersecurity story lines to watch in 2020:
1. Hackers seeking to disrupt the election might not wait until November — and neither are those defending against the threats.
Hackers could try to manipulate election systems to sow chaos during the Democratic primaries and caucuses and to raise questions about whether the correct candidate was declared the winner of a race. And they could launch disinformation campaigns to sow dissent between progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party.
2. The U.S. is on high alert for Iranian cyberattacks.
Government and industry leaders are starting the year on high alert after a U.S. military strike that killed a top Iranian general.
3. China is racing ahead in 5G and more.
In 2020, get ready for a broader battle across a range of technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing, that will determine who controls the internet — and how secure it is.