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Journalist Fred Kaplan Discusses the History and Politics of Russian-American Cyber Sabotage

November 2, 2016
UNC Global

On Oct. 24, journalist Fred Kaplan discussed the next front in the cyber war between the United States and Russia in a talk sponsored by the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies (CSEEES) and the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense (PWAD) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kaplan, who has a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written for the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Foreign Affairs and the New York Times, and has penned five books about American politics. One of them, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

He currently writes a national security column for Slate magazine, and his most recent book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, chronicles the long history of hacking between the United States and Russia.

CSEEES Director Donald J. Raleigh invited Kaplan to UNC after the hack of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this summer, in which 19,000 emails were released, anticipating that cyberattacks would continue to impact the election and U.S. relations with Russia. This was borne out by the Obama administration’s Oct. 7 declaration that they believed “Russia’s senior-most officials” orchestrated the hack, including, potentially, President Vladimir Putin, and a more recent attack on servers on the East Coast on Oct. 21.

Hacking is “nothing new,” Kaplan explained to the audience at the FedEx Global Education Center. The first national security directive on hacking dates to 1984, and the first evidence of Department of Defense attacks by Russia surfaced in 1998. However, issues of cyber security take on heightened urgency in the age of the so-called “internet of things.” This network consists of smart TVs, smart thermostats, self-driving cars and other objects used in daily life that now rely on the internet to function.

“Nobody even thinks about security for these things because what does somebody want to get into my baby monitor for?” Kaplan said.

However, the threat is not, Kaplan explained, a hacker that wants to wreak havoc on someone’s mundane household appliances, but one who uses an unsecured object as a gateway from which to target more critical networks. Hackers can use these “imminently hackable” objects as robots that send a multitude of signals to their desired targets, overwhelming their systems until they can no longer function. These targets may include critical infrastructure, the transportation, electrical, financial and other systems that enable society to function.

“It’s not just the military, it’s our entire social and economic basis,” that is at stake, Kaplan warned.

Individuals who want to guard themselves against hacking can take simple measures, like changing the default passwords on household items that are connected to the internet, and checking to make sure an email is really from its stated sender before opening any attachments.

Ultimately, however, Kaplan concluded that hackers, particularly state-sponsored ones, are sophisticated.

“If they want to get in your stuff, it’s hopeless. There’s nothing you can do about it,” he stated.

The situation is unlikely to improve until Americans overcome fears of government overreach that prevent the establishment of security regulations. There is a similar lack of norms and standards regarding hacking on the international scale, and what agreements exist are largely unenforceable. However, Kaplan points to recent documents such as the Tallinn Manual on International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare as promising starts to an important conversation.

“Fred Kaplan’s talk attracted an engaged interdisciplinary audience that actively participated in the question and answer session that followed, thereby contributing to the center’s mission of serving as a hub at UNC for all things related to Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe,” said Donald J. Raleigh, director of CSEEES.


About the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies

Founded in 1991, CSEEES works to promote understanding of and engagement with East European and Eurasian countries through a variety of projects and activities, including teacher training, public outreach, course development, instruction in area and language studies, conferences and workshops, and faculty and student exchanges.

Approximately 30 Carolina faculty members are affiliated with the center. They teach large numbers of undergraduates and attract an outstanding pool of graduate students in a variety of fields such as political science, anthropology and history—in fact, every Russian history doctoral student in the past ten years has been the recipient of one of the most prestigious academic awards, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad scholarships. CSEEES’s interdisciplinary master’s program, the Russian, Eurasian and East European studies track in the Curriculum in Global Studies master’s program, has trained more than eighty students since its inception, approximately 65 percent of whom work for the U.S. government.

Learn more about the program on the CSEEES website.

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