After nearly two years of investigation and months of delays — not to mention partisan bickering the whole time, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the president’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election is out today.
We’re not a politics news site but we’re still looking into it — tech has figured more prominently than ever in the last few years and understanding its role in what could be a major political event is crucial for the industry and government both.
The report and discussion thereof is bound to be highly politically charged from the get-go and the repercussions from what is disclosed therein are sure to reach many in and out of office. But there are also interesting threads to pull as far as events and conspiracies that could only exist online or using modern technology and services, and for these the perspective of technology, not politics, reporting may be best suited to add context and interpretation.
What do we expect to find in the report that is of particular interest to the tech world?
The topic that is most relevant and least explored already is the nature of Russia’s most direct involvement in the 2016 election, namely the hack of the Democratic National Committee email server, attributed to Russia’s GRU intelligence unit, and funneling of this information to WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. The recent arrest of Julian Assange may prove relevant here.
The report will illuminate many things relating to these events, not necessarily technical details — although they may have been furnished by any number of parties — but plans, dates, people involved, and networks through which the hack and resulting data were communicated. Why was this added to Mueller’s pile in the first place? What about Assange? Who knew about the hack and when, and what does that imply?
Another topic, which seems more well trodden but about which we can never seem to know enough, is the origin and extent of Russian “troll farm” activity through the so-called Internet Research Agency. We’ve seen a great deal of their work as part of the ongoing barbecue of Facebook’s leadership, and to a lesser extent other social media platforms, but there’s much we don’t know as well.
Was there coordination with some U.S. entities? How was the content created, and the topics chosen? Was there a stated outcome, such as dividing the electorate or damaging Clinton’s reputation? Was this contiguous with earlier operations? How, if at all, did it change once Trump was named the Republican candidate, and was this related to other communications with his campaign?
The last of our topics of most likely interest is that of the technological methods employed by Mueller in his investigation. Previous investigations of this scale into the activities of sitting presidents and their campaigns have occurred in completely different eras, when things like emails, metadata, and encrypted messaging weren’t, as they are today, commonplace.
How did Mueller pursue and collect privileged communications on, for example, private email servers and hosted web services? What services and networks were contacted, and how did they respond? How were the U.S.’ surveillance tools employed? What about location service from tech giants or telecoms? Was other garden-variety metadata — the type we are often told is harmless and which is often unregulated — used in the investigation to any effect?
We will be poring over the report with these thoughts and ideas in mind but also with an eye to any other interesting tech-related item that may appear. Perhaps that private server used “admin/password” as their login. Perhaps GRU agents were communicating using a cryptographic method known to be unsafe. Perhaps the vice-president uses a Palm Pre?
We’ll leave the politics to cable news and D.C. insiders, but tech is key to this report and we aim to explain why and how.