U.S. Seeks to Thwart Foreign Cyber Adversaries

Concerns about foreign hackers have been heightened since the 2016 presidential election, given that various U.S. intelligence agencies reported foreign Internet efforts to influence that election. And with mid-term Congressional elections coming up, those concerns have not abated. 

Meanwhile, the personal Gmail accounts of some U.S. Senators and Senate staff recently were targeted, as confirmed by a Google spokesperson to CNN. Indeed, CNN reports that Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has written a letter to Senate leadership stating that “at least one major technology company has informed a number of Senators and Senate staff members that their personal email accounts were targeted by foreign government hackers.”

Google has stated that it was the company referenced by Wyden, as reported by CNN. A Senate aide informed CNN that both Democrats and Republicans were targeted. Google did not tell CNN whether or not that hack was successful. Senator Wyden expressed “serious concern” that the Senate Sergeant of Arms does not possess the authority to safeguard senators and their staff from Internet attacks, as reported by CNN. This is important because the Senate Sergeant of Arms is tasked with overseeing Senate security.

It is in this context that the White House recently has authorized “offensive cyber operations” vis-a-vis US adversaries, according to the Washington Post. A new policy apparently is in place to ease up on rules relating to the use of digital weapons to protect the nation, as stated by National Security Adviser John Bolton and as reported by the Washington Post. Bolton reportedly stated that “our hands are not as tied as they were in the Obama administration.”

Bolton did not spell out many specific details about the offensive cyber operations. However, the strategy is suppose to incorporate a new presidential directive that allows the military and other government agencies to implement Internet operations to protect government systems and US mission critical networks, according to the Washington Post.

Some, including Representative James Langevin of Rhode Island, argue that the new offensive is akin to what was in place during the Obama administration and it still does not go far enough in terms of providing sufficient protection from foreign adversaries. Moreover, Langevin, according to the Washington Post, noted the irony of Bolton’s prior elimination of the position of White House cyber coordinator as soon as Bolton assumed his position earlier in 2018.

For democracy to succeed, the electorate must believe that its election systems work and are not compromised. Accordingly, true best efforts must be taken to assure the legitimacy of our elections. This may be expensive. But this is money well-spent. Our open and free elections are the bedrock of our democracy.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.