March 27, 2018, 12:15 PM - 01:45 PM

12:15 PM

LBJ School of Public Affairs, SRH 3.122

Weapons of Mass Deception: The Changing Cyber Landscape
March 27, 2018, 12:15 PM - 01:45 PM
Weapons of Mass Deception: The Changing Cyber Landscape

On Tuesday, March 27, 2018, the Robert Strauss Center welcomed Amy Zegart, co-director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, for a talk on cybersecurity. The talk is part of the Strauss Center's Brumley Speaker Series.

Photos of the event can be found here and a video of the talk is available here.

Dr. Zegart’s talk spanned the years from 2007 when cyber threats were hardly mentioned, through 2012’s warnings of a “cyber Pearl Harbor,” culminating in today’s events with foreign state actors using cyber-based psyops to access personal data and undermine the legitimacy of our elections.

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The two main themes of her talk were describing the kinds of cyber threats we currently face and explaining the reasons why the US is so vulnerable to those threats. Dr. Zegart provided clarity in describing the 5 types of threats in cyberspace; bad actors want to steal, spy, disrupt, destroy, or deceive – and sometimes all of the above. These can be state or non-state actors, with non-state actors ranging from random teen pranksters like Mafiaboy to organized political movements like Anonymous, but some of the most insidious and difficult to contain are Insider threats. Due to a digital economy of scale, individual insiders like Snowden can now abscond with millions of files on a removable disk drive instead of hundreds in garbage bags like the infamous FBI double agent Robert Hanssen.

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In addition to electoral consequences, Dr. Zegart spoke about foreign actors using divisive social issues to create a real-life clash close to home here at the University of Texas. Russian operatives created two separate Facebook groups, Heart of Texas and United Muslims, who instigated a confrontation by scheduling dueling protests near the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston on May 21, 2016. Heart of Texas announced that the rally was to “Stop Islamification of Texas,” while United Muslims were gathering to “Save Islamic Knowledge,” but in truth, neither group was located in the US.

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She also highlights how cyber threat terminology is similar to that used to refer to malicious biological or physical harms, e.g., ‘attack,’ ‘breach,’ and ‘infect,’ noting that “we’d rather be connected than protected.” In fact, in the US, our connectedness is both our most powerful asset and most damaging vulnerability. There are several differences between cyber threats and threats in other domains - such as air, land, or sea. These include the ubiquity of networked devices, from medical products to refrigerators. This makes the attack surface incredibly large for enemies to penetrate, and further it is riddled with vulnerabilities. In fact, it is estimated that for every 2400 lines of code there is one error that could have to the potential to compromise a system. Finally, there is the problem of diffuse control and what Dr. Zegart calls the “Suit-Hoodie divide.” The lack of communication and understanding between operators and regulators, programmers and board members creates counterproductive organizational dynamics and a trust deficit that, Zegart says, is one of our most important challenges in this new cyber landscape.

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Dr. Zegart’s research examines organizational development, adaptation, and innovation in national security policy. Her current research includes a book with Condoleezza Rice on how business leaders can manage political risk, a project on drones and coercion, and a book about intelligence challenges in the digital age. Dr. Zegart served on the Clinton administration's National Security Council staff and as a foreign policy adviser to the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign. She has testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, provided training to the Marine Corps, and advised officials on intelligence and homeland security matters. From 2009 to 2011 she served on the National Academies of Science Panel to Improve Intelligence Analysis. Her commentary has been featured on national television and radio shows and in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.  Zegart holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and is a recognized authority on the U.S. Intelligence Community.