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A Conversation about the SolarWinds Hack

January 8, 2021


Eliot Cohen, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

Thomas Rid, Professor of Strategic Studies

The school hosted a discussion on the recent Russian electronic warfare upon US business and governmental operations.

Rid shared a host of interesting information in regards to the nature of the Russian cyber warfare apparatus and why and how it targets the US through the lens of his new book, Active Measures. In his view, disinformation is a weapon of the weak, and Moscow’s continuous reliance on disinformation shows that its range of tools has become increasingly limited and more desperate following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Asked on the attempted insurrection by Pro-Trump factions that took place on the 6th of January 2021, Rid noted that conspiracy theories have created a reality of their own and are now the greatest threat to liberal democracy. He further noted how the appalling pictures coming out of the ‘Fall of the Capital,’ would haunt the country for some time to come. In tandem, Rid found that the most peculiar aspect of the failed attack was how the refusal to wear protective face masks by the individuals will actually ensure that they are quickly prosecuted by law enforcement by revealing the individuals’ identities. Similarly, Rid believed that most of the planning for this operation was done on more open platforms such as Twitter and 4Chan, as opposed to the deep or dark web, and that global tech companies were unfairly singled out for somehow allowing this to take place.

Rid then reminded the audience that democracy is not proven by its winners but by its losers, and that the Democratic loss actually helps to remove harmful or unpopular ideas from the marketplace of thoughts. Rid noted how local individuals helping the FBI and law enforcement identify the perpetrators through open-source intelligence, shows the growing synergy between the public, technology, and governments. Ultimately, Rid believed that governments should involve and help private sector IT departments from the top down, as well as trying to find a way to undo the positive feedback loop of conspiracy theorists.