The Most Valuable Commodity in Cyberwar: Real Information

(Bloomberg) -- Since revelations that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign received  support from Russian hackers, there’s been a growing appreciation for the failure of social media companies to crack down on misinformation and fake news. Yesterday, we got a reminder, however, that foreign governments and partisan operatives spend a lot of time trying to vacuum up very real information.

In a hack that required not just insane technical expertise but the manipulation of obscure manufacturing supply chains, Chinese spies achieved the ultimate dystopian nightmare: planting tiny microchips smaller than a sharpened pencil tip inside server motherboards. The feat was reported in this week’s stunning Bloomberg Businessweek cover story written by Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley. The investigation shows that Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., along with some two-dozen other companies, were exposed to the scheme by buying servers from Super Micro Computer Inc., which were implanted with the surveillance chips at subcontractors’ factories in China. All three companies disputed the story. Supermicro’s shares fell 41 percent Thursday.

The exposé was published the same day that the U.S. Justice Department indicted seven Russian officers for allegedly launching cyberattacks against groups investigating Russians, including anti-doping organizations and groups looking into the country’s chemical weapons use. The U.S. government contends that the hackers aimed to undermine investigators and embarrass athletes by falsely claiming they were using performance-enhancing drugs. The effort has clear echoes of the hack of the Democratic National Committee—obtain real emails but release them selectively in order to manipulate the media’s focus.

We live in a time when information is so valuable that hackers will go to extreme lengths to obtain it, but the truth is scarce—in part, because hackers use that information to create confusion and division.

I read those two jarring bits of news— hackers at the top of their game—alongside another story: Joshua Green wrote in Businessweek about a former Obama operative who has “amassed an army of 16,000 amateur sleuths who, with professional guidance, have spent months ferreting out damaging material on scores of vulnerable Republicans in Congress and state legislatures.” The group’s leader says it doesn’t hack anyone or deploy illegal means to obtain its opposition research. It sounds a bit like 4Chan with some top-down organization and Democratic establishment leanings.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with opposition research. Digging up real documents and then handing them over to journalists to vet them is a tried and true practice. But unleashing morsels of unsubstantiated information and innuendo on the world without a neutral intermediary is what’s most worrying.

The national dialog of late has zeroed in on how Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. distribute fake news. But this week we’ve gotten several stunning reminders of the great lengths that nations and party loyalists will go to obtain real information. We don’t have an answer for what we will do when we’re again faced with real information designed to manipulate us. Just like when a hacker exposed celebrities’ private nude photos, when a foreign country leaks sensitive information, many Americans are unlikely to look away.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Facebook is in turmoil, again. This time employees are upset about a controversial move by Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president for global public policy, according to the New York Times. Kaplan sat behind Judge Brett Kavanaugh in a show of support at a hearing focused on a sexual assault allegation.

The Nintendo Switch could get an upgrade. The new version could come as soon as next summer, the Wall Street Journal reports. The device could have a nicer screen but would otherwise be compatible with the current version. I’m just counting down the days until Red Dead Redemption 2 is released.

EBay escalates its fight with Amazon over poaching. EBay issued a cease-and-desist letter and could be preparing for a legal battle with Amazon.

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