Insights & Analyses

OWI Labs op-ed: Russian indictments put spotlight on US identity crisis

February 16, 2018

What you need to know

Identity in the United States, and for most of the world, has traditionally developed in silos — with the same personal data points being used across industries for access and permission administration. Unfortunately, our country’s antiquated identity system gives reason for major concern. If a criminal successfully steals your personally identifiable information (PII) — cell phone number, address, date of birth, first and last name — they could then gain access to many of your personal accounts. For example, if someone hacks your email and obtains your PII, that same information could be used to get a credit card, buy a car, make a social media account, get insurance, all in your name and without you knowing. To that end, what if someone could obtain the PII of a tremendous number of people, how could that affect you? How could that affect our country?

On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals, as well as three Russian companies now being dubbed the “troll factory,” for allegedly interfering with the 2016 U.S. election. The indictment involves eight criminal counts, including but not limited to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Moreover, the report asserts that the supposed goal of the Russian state actors was to support Donald Trump’s candidacy while conspiring against Hillary Clinton’s. The antagonists’ social media strategy was reportedly extensive and complex, but one of their alleged tactics was to create fraudulent social media accounts and pages aimed at drumming up controversial political topics that Clinton was vulnerable to in swing states.

The report goes on to detail how one of the accused companies, known as the “Internet Research Agency,” allegedly started the so-called “translator project,” which was:

“…focused on U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter”

News of Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement into the 2016 election has been greatly discussed over the past year, and we are finally seeing the results. The world is trying to grapple with what this news means, and how it will affect the U.S. and the greater global landscape.

Why is this important?

This report is important for many reasons in the identity space, including:

  1. Low barrier to entry. Since as early as 2014, foreign governments, including Russia, have had the resources and means to infiltrate and substantially impose their will onto the U.S.
  2. Data breach on a grander scale. After the Equifax breach, some wondered how a data breach could affect them. That answer is now apparent: Compromised personal data — from cell phone numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of births, and names — was used by foreign governments to fuel dissent among social media groups, and ultimately compromise the integrity of the U.S. electoral process.
  3. Trust in the institution. From an identity perspective, authenticating identities is no longer the main issue. Instead, we should be focusing on the problem of Verification. U.S. citizens should trust the institutions they transact with online to properly identify the other users in the community, and they should feel fconfident they are not victims of foreign conspiracies against the U.S. government.
  4. Identity poses a risk to integrity. Many of the institutions within the U.S. have outdated solutions to protect their consumer’s identity, and our inability to proactively solve the problem of identity has not only put citizens at risk for identity theft, they also put the integrity of our elections at risk.

The implications of this news are vast, however the main point is clear: Our country has an identity crisis which we have yet to solve.

Something has to happen

Mueller’s indictment of the 13 Russians is yet another example of how our outdated identity system in the U.S. is vulnerable to malicious activities from foreign actors. As virtual terrorism threatens to undermine our institutions, the situation presents an opportunity for the U.S. government to address the growing concerns around an outdated infrastructure.

Despite numerous other identity incidents in recent months, officials have been slow to react. Just last week, Mick Mulvaney, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced his department would no longer be pursuing a full-scale investigation into Equifax and the massive data breach which occured in mid-2017.

Perhaps with national security now a part of the concern, this incident will help spur the federal government to take stern action. While the alleged actions by Russian nationals are alarming, the situation presents an opportunity for Congress to show strength and response. Hearings tackling thorny issues like data privacy, the security implications of the Social Security number, and the electoral process would be logical first steps. Another potential avenue would be imposing enhanced cybersecurity standards onto the market, helping the American people feel safe in this digital world.

We should no longer be content with business as usual. Citizens, institutions and governments around the world should all view this as an opportunity to rally around positive change for our identity systems.