Authoritarian Soft Power? Russia, International Cyber Conflict, and the Rise of Information

Speaker: Dr Jaclyn Kerr - Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

About the seminar

In the lead-up to the November 2016 U.S. presidential election, the American media audience was barraged by a surprising display of confidential information and correspondence stemming from hacked private and organizational emails and other records, most notably from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).  After months of speculation concerning Russian involvement in the hacking which led to the release of private documents and data on the sites WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and Guccifer 2.0, in early October the Obama administration formally announced its belief that the Russian Federation was behind the disclosures and that these were intended to interfere with the United States election cycle. Reporting around these incidents swiftly resorted to labels of "cyber-attack" to describe the purported Russian involvement. The administration also indicated its consideration of a "proportional" response.

For those familiar with Russian politics, such strategic release of "compromising material" concerning political rivals does not appear so unusual, with so-called "kompromat" having been utilized to tarnish reputations and undermine opponent messages for years.  Recent Russian examples have included leaked recordings of private phone conversations by opposition leaders and video footage of prominent critics in bed with prostitutes.  The international deployment of such a tactic to influence the domestic politics of another country is a little more novel, however.

These events underscored a conceptual tension that has played out on the international stage for years.  While Russia and China have led efforts to engage the international community in discussion of "information security" and a potential need for norms to protect the "information sovereignty" of countries from foreign adversaries, the United States and Western democracies have objected to such concepts, defined to include the content layer of the Internet, media, and other information flows as potential vehicles of aggression, lending legitimacy to domestic policies of Internet and media censorship in countries where the regimes feel threatened by the free flow of information.  The US and allies have focused on a narrower understanding of cybersecurity and cyber conflict in which aggression is conceptualized particularly in terms of destructive or kinetic effects – from sabotage of equipment to mass-casualty - inducing destruction of critical infrastructure.  While exfiltration of data for intelligence purposes or corporate espionage has also been a subject of concern, the notion of information or media content itself as a vector of aggression has been viewed as a problem only for those states that would deprive their citizens of independent media and freedom of expression.  But the vulnerability of democracies to the strategic use of information content for the sake of political influence has perhaps been undertheorized.

This talk examines Russia's evolving information strategy abroad, examining the variety of different tools now being used to try to influence the domestic political discourse and media space of other countries.  From online trolls and bots to DDoS attacks, hacking, kompromat, deception, and targeted propagandistic media outlets, the talk outlines current Russian tactics of information manipulation and "information warfare" recently deployed in settings from Ukraine and Georgia to Syria and the United States.  The analysis discusses how many of these techniques – aimed at shaping the narrative in a complex information space – have long been utilized at home to manage Russia's own public discourse and media space, but only recently emerged as tools in the country's strategic playbook to exert its influence in international affairs.

Dr. Jaclyn Kerr is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She is also an Affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Her research examines cybersecurity and information security strategy, Internet governance, and the Internet policies of non-democratic regimes. Areas of interest also include risk and governance in relation to emerging technologies, and the relationships between security, privacy, and freedom of expression in Internet policy. She was a Science, Technology, and Public Policy (STPP) Pre-Doctoral Fellow with the Cyber Security Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Visiting Scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University in 2015-2016 and a Cybersecurity Predoctoral Fellow at Stanford's CISAC in 2014-2015. Jackie holds a PhD and MA in Government from Georgetown University, and an MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and a BAS in Mathematics and Slavic Languages and Literatures from Stanford University. She has held research fellowships in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Qatar, and has previous professional experience as a software engineer.

The seminar is open for everyone, and there is no registration. We hope to see you there!

Published Sep. 8, 2017 3:49 PM - Last modified Sep. 11, 2017 2:02 PM