On Tuesday, May 22nd, the Institute for Education’s Tech in Gov program hosted General Michael Hayden and Congressman Will Hurd at the Residence of the Armenian Ambassador, H.E. Grigor Hovhannissian, for a Smart Security panel moderated by ABC News correspondent Kyra Phillips. Guests were greeted downstairs with wine, champagne, and Armenian brandy before moving upstairs for Ambassador Hovhannissian’s welcoming remarks.
The focus of the evening, partly inspired by General Hayden’s latest book, The Assault on Intelligence, was on the role of tech in security and what to expect from the future. In both content and those who attended, tech was well represented. The importance of tech’s role in the world wasn’t underestimated by anyone in the room that evening, as Coach Kathy Kemper welcomed the crowd and remarked that “the future of democracy rests with young people, and the future of the world rests with those who embrace the latest technologies.” These remarks, and the fact the event was hosted by the Armenian Ambassador, become especially relevant when considering that just last month, the world witnessed ten dramatic days of protests that forced Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign. The man who replaced him, Nikol Pashinian, was the leader of those protests. He rode to power on the backs of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, mostly tech-sector employees under 30. Calling them “young shock troops,” the New York Times observed “They used messaging apps like Telegram to coordinate protests,” for example by stopping traffic by “organizing infinite loops of pedestrians at street crossings not controlled by traffic lights.”
In keeping with the tech focus, John Paul Farmer, the co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and current Director of Microsoft’s Technology & Civic Innovation group, introduced the panel. He highlighted the diversity of the speakers, noting that despite different hometowns, sports teams, and political parties, the desire for a government that works unites them. Kyra Phillips then kicked off the panel, cutting straight to the chase by noting General Hayden’s use of former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig’s quote “Cyber systems nourish us, but at the same time they weaken and poison us.” Hayden explained that working within the digital domain for security is simultaneously empowering and enabling yet makes the U.S. vulnerable. Representative Hurd expanded upon this by noting how much has changed in tech since he left the CIA in 2009, and how important it will be to have people in agencies who understand new systems and can learn from past mistakes in Internet security.
Phillips then asked both panelists about “bad actors:” from least capable to most capable, who are they? Nation-states, criminal gangs, hacktivists? Hayden agreed with this ranking but added the category of “the disaffected,” and noted that nation-states have more consequences to be aware of, which might limit the scope and severity of cyber actions they pursue in comparison with other actors’ abilities. Representative Hurd added a key point to the question of cyber-attacks: “We can defend against 85% of that using basic digital hygiene.” With General Hayden nodding along in agreement, Hurd listed many underestimated safety protections: keep your software updated, have a password more than 14 characters, and don’t click on emails from people you don’t know. Nothing too fancy is required; just following the basics can protect from interference, even from nation-states.
The nation-state at the forefront of the panel’s mind was Russia, and Phillips asked both men for a reality check on Russia’s role in election interference. Hurd’s approach was to ask why Russia targeted the U.S., noting that the U.S. plays a key role in NATO, and in undermining the U.S.’s democratic institutions and overall system, Russia would be undermining NATO and experience more freedom on the global stage. Part of his solution to the U.S.’s vulnerability circles back to an earlier point on digital hygiene; culturally, we live in a society that likes to overshare information and being more judicious and careful on what we share with strangers would go a long way towards protecting the U.S. system from interference. Hurd earned a laugh from the audience in saying “You have to assess the credibility of a post… Just because my nutty uncle posts something doesn’t mean I should assume my nutty uncle knows what he’s talking about.”
General Hayden expanded on Representative Hurd’s mention of Russia’s covert influence campaign, explaining that the purpose is to exploit pre-existing fractures. This means that “the ultimate fix is ourselves;” the same tactics were attempted in Norway yet were unsuccessful because their system is not as fractious at the U.S.’s. Exacerbating this, as Hayden’s book outlines, “We have moved into a post-truth, trending culture.” The public relies less on data and evidence, and more on feeling, preference, emotion, loyalty, tribe, or grievance. Hayden noted this reinforces Hurd’s point on how if someone we know posts something, we share it without thinking or verifying it because “tribal” thought processes might prevail over fact-based ones. When asked whether Russia or China presented a larger threat, Representative Hurd emphasized the greater issue that General Hayden had outlined: the chasm in society. Overall, Hurd takes an optimistic tone in saying that “Way more unites us than divides us,” and believes that once the public realizes this, the system can begin healing and be more resistant to future attacks.
In terms of resistance and leadership in the future of cyber, Kyra Phillips questioned the logic behind getting rid of the position of the “cyber czar.” On the removal, General Hayden he “can’t tell you the logic of the White House scrapping the position of cyber czar because there doesn’t seem to be any,” and worries that the cyber portfolio has been “submerged in the White House structure, and at worst, deemphasized.” Representative Hurd agrees that he’s concerned about the removal of the position of ambassador-at-large for cybersecurity and hopes Secretary Pompeo will reinstate it, but also surmises that getting rid of the cyber czar was more about removing a level of management and rearranging staffing chains of authority than a statement on values. He still reserves judgement on whether it will be a smart strategic decision.
During the Q&A session, the audience wanted to know about what keeps the General and Congressman awake at night when it comes to the future of cyber warfare. General Hayden commented that the fact that the U.S. has Cyber Command, at Fort Meade, “is explicit evidence that we believe that a cyber conflict could be a decisive conflict rather than a supportive conflict… and we can imagine a future conflict in which cyber is the dominant campaign and air, land, space, and sea are supportive.” However, Hayden believes that in practice, cyber will have a more supportive role, but that Russia’s interference provides an example for future conflict. What keeps Representative Hurd up at night is that there is a “hubris in the federal government that we have the greatest capabilities, we are the smartest, and we are the fastest, but we can’t take for granted what other countries are doing and catching up to us.” In response to the Ambassador of Kazakhstan’s question on how the international community can cooperate to combat cyber-attacks, Representative Hurd pointed to Estonia’s Tallinn Manual as a model for applying international law to cyberspace. In response to a query on the U.S.’s frequently changing policy towards China and ZTE, General Hayden’s point is that we should consider security on a broad basis rather than narrowly, and that it’s all about trade-offs when it comes to policy, which do change in response to the broader context.