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Bull Session

Hacking the DNC

July 28, 2016          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life we discuss cyberwarfare, propaganda, and the release of the DNC’s e-mails on WikiLeaks, but what some security experts have indicated to be Russian hackers.

Small groups of technologically empowered people are shaping our digital world in new ways. We’ve heard about the creative class of knowledge workers who leverage digital technology to build new things. These destructive actors are, in many ways, their polar opposite.

 
Resources:
Clinton campaign — and some cyber experts — say Russia is behind email release

Jon:
Welcome to episode 166 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon.

Jon:
Hey, Dirk. We have an exciting episode for you this week. We’re going to be talking about one of our favorite topics, cyber warfare, propaganda and in this case, this week, the release of the DNC’s emails on WikiLeaks by what some security experts have indicated to be Russian hackers. Of course, that’s as yet unsubstantiated but there is suspicion anyway that the hackers who released this very sensitive information were of Russian origin.

Why is this issue coming to the fore now? Well, cyber warfare, generally speaking, has been developing in some really significant ways over the past year, excuse me. We’ve had elements like the Sony hack, of course the Snowden revelations about the NSA and also, just relatively recently, the Panama Papers, which highly embarrassed what we’d call the 1%, the uber-wealthy who were sheltering their funds in overseas bank accounts.

Being in power isn’t what it used to be or it’s not as nice as it used to be when hackers can reveal all your secrets to the public and start to change or sway public opinion by revealing dirty secrets.

Dirk:
Transparency is messy, Jon.

Jon:
Yes, and even more so for the DNC, this is an ill-timed hack to say the least because this is supposed to be the high watermark for the Clinton campaign accepting the Democratic nomination this week and of course, they have to deal with this treasure trove of embarrassing secrets, whether it’s about the way the party finances itself, the way it conducts its strategy, especially around the campaign of Bernie Sanders versus Clinton, the supposed neutrality of the DNC was revealed to be completely false and they were very much backing Clinton throughout. This is a very sensitive set of emails that has been proven to be highly embarrassing for the Democrats.

Ultimately, what I wanted to get to is how much this is a small group of very talented digital knowledge workers who are able to create this level of chaos and we talk about their creative class, of which I consider us a part because we use digital tools to create things like software. There’s the flip side to that, which is it’s another kind of creativity but you could even label it the destructive class, those who take these same digital tools, write code in this case or whatever the elements were that created this hack and revealed all this information. They use it for things that are essentially weaponized information.

WikiLeaks has proven to be a very useful tool for this kind of information, and ultimately, the Digital Life has enabled small groups of people, acting independently, to have large amounts of power and to disrupt those people in power. I know I touched on probably about 5 or 6 different things, Dirk. What’s your first pledge to this?

Dirk:
I mean welcome to the world of digital information, where nothing is private or secret anymore. We should assume that everything we do online, that everything we do in a digital capacity is going to get out there. We just act as though that were the case first and foremost, because at some point, sooner or later, it probably will, one way or the other. For me, I don’t know, Jon, this whole story for me is a shrug, and I say that from the perspective that I take for granted the DNC stacking the deck for Clinton over Sanders. I take for granted that the Russian government is interested in steering our election in a way that is better for them. I take for granted that the Russian government and/or hackers funded by or related to the Russian government are able to penetrate what are probably paltry defenses of the DNC.

There’s no aspect of this story that surprises me. The only thing that’s interesting about it is now everyone knows, and other people are shocked. What are you shocked about? Stop being shocked. These things are things we should take for granted. Go over the history of politics and the history of power changing hands at scale. It’s all corrupt. The people who are involved, they have people they want to win. They have people they want to lose, and they impact it in ways small or large. The fact that this is happening within the Democratic National Committee, an organization that Hillary Clinton has been intimately associated with in ways, largely very close, for over 24 freaking years, big surprise that they’re stacking the deck for their insider over the career political outsider, Bernie Sanders.

Really, you’re shocked? Really, you’re outraged? The most outrageous thing for me about the whole story is that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who’s the head of the DNC, she announced that she’s going to resign after the convention, which is coming up this week. It will be happening when the show drops, and within a day of that announcement, Hillary Clinton hires her to oversee some major part of the campaign strategy. Out of everything that’s happened here, that’s the only thing that’s outrageous to me. Are you kidding? Wait 3 weeks. You’re going to turn right around and in the same day, hire this woman who’s seen as the figurehead for all of the corruption in the process of putting you over Bernie Senders in a moment, literally a day before you meet all of those Bernie Sanders backers, to come under the tent? Are you kidding me? Are you that freaking stupid?

I’m just aghast. That’s what surprises me, is that her level, her level of just — I mean, at this point, Hillary Clinton is the figurehead of something much bigger. Being this one woman, this one individual is the person responsible for it is not what I intend, I’m saying you but at the end of the day, she’s the head of it. She’s responsible so I’m going to use you but let me be clear, it’s in a slightly broader way. You have such hubris, you have such arrogance that you go and hire this woman immediately after she resigns in disgrace because the scandal becomes public. I cannot believe it.

We’ve gone into the politics ramble a little bit recently and it’s definitely not the purpose of the show and so I don’t want to go too much into the politics of the 2016 campaign but my big takeaways are nothing about this story shocked me until Hillary Clinton offered Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which totally blew my mind because it’s just one of the stupidest political moves that I cannot even fathom. Yeah, we shouldn’t be surprised. Russians have hacked us. Russians are trickling out information to try and steer the election in a way that they think is better for their national interest. The Democratic Party, a big organization, how long has the Democratic Party been around? 150, 200 years?

Jon:
Something like that.

Dirk:
I mean, this organization has deep-seated biases and preferences and it’s working in ways that in some pure, idealistic perspective would be seen as corrupt. Of course they are. That’s the nature of power transfer, of keeping power, of acquiring power. Come on, people, wake up.

Jon:
Yeah, I think, so point taken on the underlying pillars of this story but what this hack does provide is validation in some way or another. You can say, “Yeah, of course, Clinton is entrenched within the DNC and of course, the DNC would favor her.”, but what the emails do is really validates that statement in a way that’s undeniable, right? Whether you’re a political cynic like yourself, or a political idealist …

Dirk:
Am I a political cynic, really?

Jon:
You’re a skeptic.

Dirk:
Okay.

Jon:
You’re a skeptic. Maybe, a cynic is the further on that, down that path, but you tend to be skeptical of a lot of things in politics just is what we’re discussing right now in politics and the digital realm. I’m less skeptical and less cynical, which is why we can have an interesting conversation about this but I do find that the validation part, so same thing in design. You have an idea of something that’s going to work and if you’ve done a lot of design, then you probably have a pretty good idea, but ultimately, it has to be validated in some way or another with users. What this email provides is that backing, which from a public perspective makes it that much worse.

Dirk:
It shouldn’t, though.

Jon:
What’s interesting to me is that we have these hacks, these theatrical reveals of sensitive information more and more and they’re being used almost as like a cudgel or a bat, back in the days of a more physical political persuasion when people would show up with bats and there would be fights breaking out in various political arenas. Now the bat is digital and it’s probably swung by 5 or 6 very talented individuals but the impact is much greater than the physical bat was.

That is just, in today’s story, which of course is the political one, but we can see the skin come off a little bit about how information can be used in ways that frankly, up until now, I’ve always left for the realm of fantasy and science fiction, because as much as propaganda is something notable that came out of 20th century information usage, I never thought that I would be susceptible to propaganda. It’s the …

Dirk:
When you say you never, what timeframe are we talking about? How recently did you think you can never be susceptible to propaganda?

Jon:
As a person who does lots of reading, tries to understand all the different facets of a news story, I’d like to think that I understand a few different pieces and that I would have a well-considered opinion. To think that we are not being swayed in one way or another by the information that’s thrown at us daily, I think is naïve. I mean myself included and that we’re not being pushed in one direction or another. As I look at the information I consume, I’m ever more sensitive to who is delivering it to me and what their purpose is, and so that’s something that in a digital age, where people can cherry pick their information, sometimes it makes you feel like you’re in control of it. The truth is that even though you’re choosing what’s in your Facebook feed to some respect, you’re still being evangelized to propagandized, whatever the right word is for you.

We’re still being convinced. We’re just having maybe a little bit more active hand in the convincing now.

Dirk:
Yeah, I mean, this stuff has been happening since the beginning of time. The rise of the Roman Empire was on the back of propaganda innovation to some degree, right? There’s really nothing new in it. I mean it’s what we — with all of the stuff, there’s this — there is a way to put it, there’s this myth, there’s this disparity between reality and how we expect reality to be. To take another, to bring it into the context we’re talking about, going back to the Ashley Madison leak for example, when that hacking led to information revealed that showed that a lot of people were acting outside the bonds of their marriages.

Humans aren’t wired for monogamy. Humans aren’t wired for the constraints that are put on them by a marriage. Some people are able to go through their life and follow those rules and make it through. Some people aren’t, it’s not how the human animal is wired. Yet, there’s so much shock and disbelief when that happened, to the point where there were people committing suicide. I can remember with some specificity, one pastor who killed himself when he was revealed as one of the cheaters in the Ashley Madison leak, and he wasn’t the only one.

That, along with all of the outrage and stuff around the DNC, it’s these gaps in unrealistic expectations that we have as humans on the world that we think, “Oh, everyone should be quite happy for 60 years, only be intimate with one person. That just makes sense. Oh, we should expect the political organizations are run by really, really moral righteous people and they’re following all the rules and there’s no dirty.” That’s all crazy crap, and what this information reveals are doing is basically taking advantage of that arbitrage, the space between these silly, unrealistic expectations we have of the world based in mythology and ignorance and thousands of years old in some cases, with the freaking realities of how does the human animal function, with the realities of how is power at scale contested and how do humans behave when at the center of deciding how that power should be contested, among many others.

We see it in horribly unrealistic and incorrect terms, and that’s what these information reveals are taking advantage of is the systemic ignorance from the standpoint of expectations that we have compared to the freaking reality of how the world works.

Jon:
Yeah, so I think it’s the specific validation that gets you, right? With the Ashley Madison hack for instance, there is the pastor, the poor soul who was revealed to be a cheater on the site. Then of course, there’s the whole world of pastors, some of which are bound to be not cheaters and some who are bound to be cheaters but it’s the specific and personal information that’s revealed that makes that information so damning. You know that okay, some people will do this and some people won’t but when it’s at odds, I guess with the veneer that pastor had, then you’re going to run into trouble.

With the DNC, I wouldn’t say that the veneer is quite as polished or upstanding or however else you want to describe it, but there’s still a veneer of fairness that it wanted to project. When it comes down to it, it may not have been true but they still wanted some of Sanders’ supporters to at least think that, “Oh, he got kind of a fair shake.”, and now we know he didn’t get a fair shake at all.

Dirk:
Did he or didn’t he? To use your exact language, he probably got kind of a fair shake. It’s not like they completely bombed his campaign out. He got kind of a fair shake.

Jon:
He did.

Dirk:
It just wasn’t really fair. It wasn’t really …

Jon:
It wasn’t as fair as it could be, and here’s where …

Dirk:
In utopia though, it might have been as fair as it could be in the context of constraints of reality, in the wealthiest nation in the world, that has hundreds of millions of citizens, that has two political parties at the end of the day that are contesting this thing, and has two candidates within one of the two political parties who are fighting for it. Maybe that is as fair as it can possibly be, given all of the context of the moment.

Jon:
Right, and you and I had a conversation earlier that our language needs nuance, around this word of fairness. We need a new word for as fair as it possibly could be given just the sheer corruption of politics and power in general. We need a word for that. We need words for degrees of corruption, because frankly, we talk about different degrees of it all the time but I like that, as fair as it could possibly be, given the constraints of reality.

Dirk:
I’ve really liked the ish trend. I use ish a lot these days. Fairish seems to work pretty well.

Jon:
They got hacked and it revealed that the fairish and non-fairish treatment of Bernie Sanders.

Dirk:
Yeah, that’s right.

Jon:
Donors and all of the other dirty laundry of the DNC. Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, at @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios. Which you can check at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk.

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter at @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 166, of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer. I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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