EDITORIAL: Cyber war reaches us

TWO YEARS AGO it was Russia. This year it’s France, and there are even more of them. What would they want from the U.S.? They’ve already got their own Disneyland.

The “them” in this case is visitors to our website. We’ve seen this before. A few months before the election in 2016 we started to see a lot of visitors to our website, www.columbiapaper.com, from Russia. In 2018 we’re now seeing a sudden and unexpected interest in our site from computers in France.

We thought it was odd that Russians would care about a community newspaper like us. But what sounded odd in 2016 feels threatening now. Russian hacking and outright cyber attacks have become facts. Twelve Russian agents have been charged by the FBI with meddling in the 2016 presidential race. For a few days earlier this month even President Trump acknowledged Russia tried to influence the election. So were we somehow useful to the Russian internet trolls’ efforts to manipulate voters?

We lack the resources to pursue that question. We don’t cover national or international news except when something in Washington or a foreign country affects life in Columbia County. But we do have online readers from around the world, including places you might expect, like Canada (8), the United Kingdom (7), Australia (2), and a few that make us curious, like Egypt and Greece (1 each) and Peru (9).

There are 237 from France now. French users currently account for 8% of our weekly traffic on the website. We don’t publish a word in French.

There could be some simple explanation, anything from a technical glitch to some sort of game or school project. But last year there was a national election in France. French and U.S. officials say that state supported Russians actively interfered with the French election in ways similar to what they did here.

If there is a connection between the French election and our French visitors, it might well be that our new French users who appear to be in France aren’t there. They could be in Canada, Peru or… Russia. Imagine that.

Russian hackers have reportedly placed malicious software on computers in corporate server networks in France, and it’s is possible some of those networks could be harnessed to disguise the true origins of the users. Oh, look! It’s our friends from France. Or maybe not.

No one has hacked our website that we know of. But people are trying. As of this week there have been 157,430 “blocked malicious login attempts” on our site. Two years ago the number was 22,000. We don’t know where these threats come from or what the perpetrators want, but their existence makes it difficult to distinguish between reasonable precautions and paranoia.

At least one other local newspaper noticed a similar trend in 2016. We all have to hope our cyber security software is up to the task of thwarting the cyber bad guys, a group that includes foreign governments as well as criminals.

The product we produce each week in print and online is local news. By local, we mean within the borders of this county with occasional exceptions. But these Russian and “French” internet visitors are forcing us to redefine what constitutes local news at a time when we don’t know how our online edition is being used.

That’s why it feels like local news when the president rejects the advice of his intelligence chiefs on Russian interference in the U.S. election and says there’s no reason why Russia would want to interfere, only to make a childish appeal for a do-over in order to say what he hadn’t said before when he was safe at home.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know what the Russians wanted from us in 2016 and what they may want again in 2018. But imagine the extent of their data collection if they are scooping up news about tiny Columbia County, NY. And then ask yourself: if all they want is information about this county, why would they need more than one user sign-in a week?

The president has shown nothing but contempt for news organizations that report critically on his policies and tweets. When a news story reminds the public he created a crisis that led to a story, he labels us fake news. And now, with the Russians on our digital doorstep, he undermines the people appointed to protect us.

This is a crisis Mr. President. You did not create it but you cannot solve it without help. And right now you’re making it worse.

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