Well, that was one heck of a week, eh? When thinking about information security and privacy, which is how I begin weekly deliberations about what to share with you, it was a doozy even outside of the unprecedented wackiness that we all witnessed last Wednesday. Putting that mess aside for a moment, there were the continuing complexities of the recent Russian hacking efforts against some of our most sensitive agencies. The Defense Department has been busy trying to plan for security in the face of the expanding 5G wireless standard, as well as the growing weaponization of drones, which are shrinking in size simultaneously making that defense more challenging.
Down the street in Washington the State Department, while also not expressly implicated in the Russian hack, announced its heightened focus on cybersecurity issues. Last week it launched the Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies Bureau that will manage, or try to manage, any national or diplomatic cybersecurity threats. More Chinese mobile apps, particularly those that facilitate online payments, were banned by the White House. There was the entire realm of private industry hacks, privacy breaches, and other incidents in this new normal of online security.
Yet, again, the uniqueness, importance, and frankly vile display of Americans dominated the news and our minds. There, too, this world of cybersecurity is deeply ensconced and relevant.
To start, as we now know, the worst of the group, those whom we would refer to as rioters rather than the vast majority whom were protesting, could not have progressed to the level of criminality that they did without social media. Many in the security community are using the phrase, "planned in plain sight." The futilely named "Stop the Steal" organization had been planning its occupation as early as December 23, and it wasn't being orchestrated in some dark web, members only slice of the internet. "If DC escalates so do we" the movement's leader charged.
Federal security factions regularly monitor the more extremist leaning, right-wing online communications. Even within our own community we have such a hate group, the League of the South. More than a dozen others operate in the Commonwealth. Maybe many more. One risk in monitoring communications on such a scale is what some in business call paralysis by analysis. There exist too much online communication, perhaps, to effectively monitor toward any action. The question about why, in the face of continual monitoring and analysis, did law enforcement not quell the violence earlier may relate to that phenomenon. It's more than the volume, though, it's also how to sift the wheat from the chaff. There's ample fodder out there that's protected by the First Amendment, that's false flag, that's disinformation. How does the government, even with its nearly limitless resources, translate information that was flying around for weeks into actionable intelligence?
That leads to another facet of last week's scenes, which appeared more akin to a Banana Republic than our Democratic Republic. But before I opine about social media's responses to the riots, let's pause at that, maybe hyperbolic, statement. I suppose that I don't really have the right experience, or enough of it, to compare what we saw to a dictatorial regime's imagery. So, let me correct it with the contra view. What I saw has nothing to do with our American way. Mind you, I am excluding from that opinion the tens of thousands who were there for what they believed were righteous reasons. And, I'd admit that many of them are caught up in this by association. It's a sad result, frankly, that some lost their employment for even being caught on camera. The un-American scenes I'm implicating were those from within the Capitol, mostly. The rioters who attacked law enforcement, that damaged the People's property, that caused death and injury. Them, and the beck and call that inspired them, do not normally appear on American nightly news lest they are shots from lands far away, both geographically and socially. Back to the second manner of social media's play in the disaster.
Not only was social media, especially Twitter, Parler, Facebook, used to foment and foster the riots, they are part of the story of the insurrectionist fallout. Parler, a little-known app until last week, has all but been shuttered since app stores are blocking its downloads. Twitter, of course, had been the preeminent channel of presidential communications--a phrase that in and of itself should concern U.S. citizens--for the majority of this administration. Now, not so much. Twitter has banned the president seemingly forever. By the way, please do not mistakenly fall into a hollow First Amendment argument in favor of reinstating that channel. The First Amendment does not govern private companies.
It's sensible to realize that social media is entwined in this all, from its planning to its fallout. The technology is also facilitating the identification and prosecution of the criminals whom perpetrated this ugly, anti-American conduct. Scores, if not hundreds, of suspects are being "rounded" up virtually. Law enforcement has been adding captured images from the video to a growing list of wanted individuals from all over the country. Some of the "poster children" of the riot are already in custody. You can count on many, many more to suffer the same fate. As mentioned above, others who may not have done a single criminal act are facing consequences since their employers are having to ask whether to let them continue representing the company while having been caught on tape, to use an old phrase.
I've not even gotten to intelligence gleaned from other digital sources. Phone records, online posts, facial recognition software, digital forensics, and on and on the new crimefighting toolkit goes. It's still, as always, cops chasing robbers. Now that the bad guys rely on tech, so too are the good guys armed.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at email@example.com.