Christopher Whyte column: Cyber volunteers make unprecedented case for investments in digital education | Columnists | #education | #technology | #training


In 1807, with their country invaded by Napoleon’s expansionist French empire and their military in bad shape, Spanish citizens picked up arms and began to fight la guerrilla — the “little war.” Over five years, the actions of guerrilleros measurably weakened France’s ability to fight the combined forces of Portugal, Great Britain and Spain on the Iberian Peninsula.

Their disruptive attacks prevented the concentration of French armies elsewhere in Europe, so much so that in the end, Napoleon himself dubbed these brave citizens his “Spanish Ulcer.” Today, hundreds of thousands of volunteer hackers and tech enthusiasts from across the West are playing a similar role in countering Russian aggression against Ukraine.

These amateur, would-be cyber thorns in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side come from an immense variety of backgrounds, from hacker hobbyists to everyday “webizens.” School teachers, software developers, janitors and gamers alike have joined online communities — the largest of which is organized by the Ukrainian government — to coordinate anti-Russia efforts.

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Some hack in the conventional sense, launching cyberattacks to counter Russia’s own hacker presence in Ukrainian networks and disrupt the Russian economy in tandem with Western sanctions. Others “hactivize” by injecting forbidden information into Russia’s increasingly closed-off media ecosystem or by publishing Russian elites’ data.

A much greater number of citizens are helping to counter disinformation by fact-checking social media reports, flagging spam accounts, and building content that raises awareness of the methods Russia is employing to deceive Ukrainians and perpetuate its brutal invasion.

It’s clear these cyber guerrilleros — numbering at least 300,000 — already are playing a critical part in Ukraine’s struggle against a militarily superior foe. Crowdsourced disruption attacks on Russian banks, oil companies and government websites have visibly frustrated Moscow’s reaction to draconian economic sanctions.

Public-facing lists of known disinformation sources are updated by the minute and state-backed Russian media channels known to peddle lies are regularly taken down. The “hacktivist” collective Anonymous even managed to replace programming on Russian TV channels with war footage.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about these activities is they are planned and executed at great speed. It often takes minutes for Russian websites whose information is posted to the messaging application Telegram to be taken offline or for Russian propaganda found by social media users to be flagged by networks of checkers.

The actions of Ukraine’s cyber guerrilleros are not just laudable. They are an incredible example of the value of civilian expertise in tackling immense digital insecurity. They make an unprecedentedly strong case for rich, universal vocational education far beyond what is common in the West today.

While many of those now fighting as digital volunteers have formal technical training, many more simply are using lessons learned from a decade of Russian interference in Ukraine’s virtual spaces. Rampant disinformation, malware encounters and familiarity with Russian threats to critical infrastructure have demythologized cyber threats for many Europeans. Though the circumstances are tragic, this shared experience is clearly producing positive digital outcomes for Ukraine.

The implications for national security closer to home are immense. Education always has been the single most important flagstone for efforts to build robust public safety practices. With national cybersecurity, this is doubly the case. Deterrence by denial, wherein foreign aggression is prevented by the construction of some sufficiently strong defensive posture, is uniquely challenging in cyberspace.

Given that the internet has introduced points of potential compromise everywhere, from our personal devices to the online services we subscribe to, strong deterrence against persistent threats means sound digital habits across entire national populations. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a cybersecurity expert to see how impractical developing such a posture sounds.

But events in Ukraine change that calculus. Ukraine’s cyber guerrilleros have shown a nation’s capacity to beat back digital insecurity can come not just from government or industry, but from an educated, informed and technically literate population. And recent cybersecurity research supports the idea that citizens will act to improve their digital security, particularly when motivated by a sense of socio-civic duty.

As such, governments across the West have little excuse now to avoid rethinking investments in digital literacy and opportunities for vocational technology education at all levels, from grade school to adult continued learning courses.

This imperative is all the more urgent for two reasons. First, Russian cyber aggression seems set to surge as Moscow tries to adapt to its new, more isolated normal. Americans need to be ready for new escalations of digital insecurity sooner than later. Second, Ukraine’s experience means actions taken in the near term to support digital literacy will constitute powerful deterrent signals.

Fortunately, this stands to be as true for regional governance as for national efforts. States like Virginia could lead the way in building a more secure cyberspace now. Indeed, it’s in their best interests to do so.

Christopher Whyte, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. He is author of two books on cyber conflict, and co-author of “Information in War,” a forthcoming book on AI and military innovation, to be published by Georgetown University Press in 2022. Contact him at: cewhyte@vcu.edu



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