The projected map was a subliminal reminder of the stakes of the speech Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly.
For all its modern appearance, the glowing map of the Russian Federation that recalling a backlit screen, seemed an updating of Soviet-style theatricality and state spectacles. As if in a new theater of state, the map of a magnified Russia seemed to cascade over a series of scrims that framed Putin’s head during the annual State of the Nation address, which he had moved to weeks before he stood for reelection to a fourth term from its traditional date. Putin was projected to win the election, but projecting the map under which he stood identified him as a spokesman for Russia, and identified his plans with the future of Russia–
–and allowed him to present a “State of the Nation” that projected the future global dominance he foresaw of Russia within the world, and allowed him to present an argument of protecting the boundaries of Russia, and the Russian Federation, even in an era when boundaries and the mapping of boundary lines are not only contested but increasingly without clear meaning. Putin’s involvement in aggressive actions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation–whether in the American elections, as all but certain, if of unclear scope; the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine; or in the elections of Brexit and Hungary, or poisoning of Russians in other countries, all distracted national bounds. But all were presented, in a cartographic sleight of hand, as a vision of Russia as a state of the twenty-first century. If our current maps no longer follow the “jigsaw puzzle” of the map that the icon of the luminescent map recalled, and the global reach of Russia’s missiles that he claimed could not be intercepted.
Remapping the Russian Federation was the central take-away from Putin’s speech to the Duma–even while allowing that “we have many problems in Russia” with twenty million Russians living below the poverty line, described the need to “transform infrastructure” and claimed that Russia faced a significant turning point in its history, which would alter its relation to space. Indeed, the argument that Russia “had caught up” with the mapping systems that were used by the American military since the 2003 Iraq War–one of the first international conflicts that Putin had encountered as President of the Russian Federation–and suggested the lack of clear limits to frontiers, or anti-missile rockets to the global scope of a new generation of nuclear-power Russian ICBM’s. A statement of the resurgence of Russia–and a renewed defense of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation–all but erased or whitewashed Russian military presence in Georgia, Ukraine, and Crimea, presenting the arrival of Russia on a global stage through an awesome holographic map.
The map offered something of a “warrant” or guarantee of the arrival of the Russian Federation on a global stage, and provided viewers a reassuring image of Russia’s prominence on the global map, despite the fairly dire state of domestic affairs and the limited plans for expanding national employment or social welfare. The value of the map, mesmerizing in its illustration of the entirety of the Russian Federation, provided an illustration of foreign policy and argument of expanded powers of global intervention, by which Putin, former head of state security, sought to suggest its arrival as a ‘strong state’ despite the historical challenges and setbacks of earlier regimes, and what Putin has long seen as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” the break-up of the Soviet Union. The map met the need to bolster Russian self-esteem, and indeed identifying esteem with the territorial protection of “Russian rights,” irrespective of the boundaries that were drawn or existed on other maps. For while erasing Russian intervention in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, the map sought to project an image of the consolidation of Russian abilities for “global governance” as an extension of Russian sovereignty.
It is striking that the map was a reflection of the manner in which Putin had long understood or seen the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an extension of American claims to sovereignty, in violation of international law, and the new image he wanted to create of Russia’s similar abilities to ignore national boundaries and boundary lines.
Video grab from RU-RTR Russian television (via AP), Thursday, March 1, 2018, allegedly portraying Russia’s firing of a nuclear-powered intercontinental missile
The map affirmed the arrival of a new consensus in the Russian states and ethnic republics–members of which were assembled before him–to recognize the arrival of a new role that Russia could occupy and would occupy in the global map. Indeed, the made-for-television map of the Russian Federation suggested the new relation between local and global–and of Russian sovereignty and international abilities for “global governance” that would be guaranteed by an expanded arsenal of nuclear weapons, in ways that demonstrated the expansive reach of Putin’s Russia far beyond its boundaries, in ways that would upstage the American use of GPS in the Iraq War, and the precedent that that war set, in Putin’s mind, for flouting international law in the assertion of American sovereignty–despite the multiple logical problems that were avoided in making such a claim. But it seems that much as George W. Bush’s headstrong rhetoric of fighting “terrorism” was adopted wholesale by Putin in subsequent violations of the sovereign rights of Ukraine, Crimea, or Syria–and the justifications for defense of Russian interests as the same as sovereign grounds.
The broadcasting of Russia’s possession of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, unable to be intercepted, as well as designed to frighten the United States or a feign to enter into an arms race, were presented as the basis for illustrating the lack of Russia’s need to respect any cartographic lines or continental divides.
1. The pre-election State of the Union address, as if a continuation of the diatribe Putin launched against the West for “trying to remake the whole world” unilaterally and in accord with its own interests, provided a broadside of the determination of Russia to defend its own interests, rather than seeking through military invasion or moving of its troops across borders to “reinstate some sort of empire.” But his discussion of how “turning points” in history determined the foundation of cities in Russia and its relation to “space” seem on the point–and a bit of pointed positioning in regard to Russia’s future positioning on a geopolitical map.
As if to respond to the ion, Putin focussed most theatrically on its development of “invincible missiles” and nuclear-powered arms as defensive weapons in a two-hour address before a packed hall that was punctuated by repeated ovations and applause. He omitted any mention of Russian presence abroad, but focussed attention on the Russian nation as able to protect its allies adequately and preserve its place in a “rapidly changing” world where some states were bound to decay if they did not keep up with the pace of change. As an almost entirely male audience uneasily awaited Putin, turning in their seats, greeting each other, staring ahead stonily or smirking and nervously straightening blue ties. All faced the glowing blue map projected above an empty stage in the new venue, as if into their minds, as if in preparation for how Putin would remind them of the problems of charting Russia’s future course, even as they may have been most satisfied with the unprecedented foreign influence Putin had achieved in much of Europe, Hungary, England, and the United States. When Putin took stage with triumphal music, describing how the “significance of our choices, and the significance of every step we take . . . [will] define the future of our country for decades,” and a new time for Russia to “develop new cities and conquer space” after maintaining the unity of the federated nation and its stability in the face of great social and economic difficulties but still faces the danger of “undermining [its] sovereignty.”
Projected onto multiple scrims, the glowing image of the Russian Federation lit by glowing centers of population echoed Putin’s discussion of stability, and the need to affirm the “self-fulfillment” of all Russians and their welfare through new economic policies, which he assured them had nothing to do with the upcoming elections, but cautioned that the failure to create technological changes would lead to potential erosion of its sovereignty despite its huge potential.
The glowing national map dominated the room overwhelmingly in which the three-term President spoke, describing the as he aimed to win an election to continue his Presidency through 2024, and convince all Russians of his leadership of the nation. Below the map, unsmiling, Putin solemnly addressed the nation as if he were its architect and the protector of its bounds; indeed, the projection of the fixed bounds of the Russian Federation onto a set of screens behind him seemed to celebrate its continued power vitality after three terms of Putin’s presidency, even as he recited fairly grim statistics about the state of the national economy. Describing the need to enhance its civil society and democratic traditions, Putin raised the prospect of once again “lagging behind” other nations, its body politic undermined by a chronic disease, and define Russia’s future, if its modernization was not affirmed in the face of . The continued coherence of the nation reminded viewers that, notwithstanding threats of dissolution after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, and a reduced GDP and natural resources, the Russian state was back.
The map of Russia was projected in isolation from the world, but the image that resembled a back-lit glowing screen became a basis for projecting the power Russia had regained on a global stage. Rather than imitating the graphics of a paper map, the iridescent blues, splotched with centers of population, called attention to the permanence of the Russian Federation’s borders and affirmed its new place in the world. The bounds of Russia were protected, the triumphalist image implied, but the place of Russia on the world stage was implicitly affirmed even if it was shown in isolation: rather than showing people, or including any place-names, the map magnified the idea of Russia, and its futuristic projection suggested the continued power of Putin to transport the nation to modernity, its boundaries protected and affirmed and its defense of allies acknowledged. While Putin had recently accused the United States of triumphalism, insisting that Russia was indeed “self-sufficient” and denying Russia was “encroaching on its neighbors” as “groundless,” he seems to have relished a new triumphalism, and famously continued to present the invincible military weapons Russia had developed–lasers, ICBM’s, which, nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles–which, while not revealed “for obvious reasons” would definitively displaced the United States from a position of global power and could penetrate US Defense Systems with ease..
“Nvogorod [is] the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” clarified Jared Kushner in the eight page of his 11-page testimony to the United States Senate, seeming to intend to reference Novgorod, but not following the best lesson in Belarusian geography or Kushner family history. In describing an ancient Russian city somewhat near Moscow but long part of Lithuania that was the residence of many Jews, Kushner revealed his hazy purchase on a site dear to his father Charles, whose parents had once been members of the city’s large Jewish community. Kushner’s admission to receiving a ceremonial “bag of dirt” from Russian banker Sergey Gorkov not only played down its ceremonial status quite adroitly–“he gave me two gifts–one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village”–but seemed to obscure whatever significance it might have by underscoring its incidental nature for a public audience.
Kushner’s orthodox religion is well known. But he cloaked whatever significance his family might have assigned the dirt–and whatever Gorkov thought he was doing carrying the earth to New York City–a bit too smoothly. Kushner’s grandparents had fled the walled ghetto of Novogrudok in 1941, as the German troops arrived in the city near Minsk, to join a Jewish partisan squad in the Belarus–escaping the ghetto via a tunnel of over two hundred yards dug over weeks by his brave grandmother Rae, then seventeen, with her brother Chonom, below electric fencing surrounding the ghetto, a conduit through which some 350 Jewish men and women fled the ghetto to nearby forests. The path of her flight from Novogrudok in the underground tunnel she dug commemorated by an overground path and in the Museum of Jewish Resistance situated in the tunnel which the Kushner family has long helped to support with its deep pockets. Rae had herself arrived in Czechoslovakia, months after clawing her way through the tunnel with her brother, using hand-made instruments to tunnel to escape Novogrudok’s ghetto, and she probably had little attachment to her place of birth or its non-Jewish residents.
Jared conflated the name as Nvogorod in somewhat surprising ways. For Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, preserved the memory of Rae’s escape on family journeys there with his sons as they reached adulthood, presumably before their Bar Mitzvah; somewhat predictably, given these ties, most Belarusian media openly crowed over the arrival of Kushner, given his ties to Belarus, in the Trump White House. And so it made some sense for the head of Russia’s state bank, the Vnesheconombank, to arrive to meet Jared Kushner in New York before the inauguration bearing a bag of dirt from the town that the Kushner’s had maintained a close tie, but which Jared seems to have misidentified. Perhaps for Jared, the memory just didn’t stick, partly due to the differences between the Belarusian place-name from that transmitted in Jewish memory and the Russian toponym: Kushner’s testimony to Congress described his family as hailing from the authentic-sounding but imagined hybridized non-place of Nvgorod, notwithstanding Charles’ best intentions, rather than Navahrudak,–a city is in fact much closer to Minsk, Belarus’ capital, than Moscow, and pronounced quite differently.
Donald Trump’s candidacy was fed by Russian media, although it remained unpopular in the Baltic states and Ukraine, nonetheless developed a considerable Belarus following partly based on the appeal of Trump’s populism. When Trump unexpectedly won the Presidential election, the President of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, a survivor from the Soviet era, warmly congratulated him–assuring Trump “You shook up American society and returned it to a real democracy,” even as he warned Russians against taking too much pleasure for Trump’s victory. Lukashenka, a wily politician, demonstrating political acuity by summoning with a sense of sageness to observe “Trump wants to make America great again–but where does that put Russia?” He has already concluded to his nation that “American society is not yet ready to elect a female president, even one as experienced as Hillary,” but more attention derived from the ties to Navahrudak. “Of course I am very proud that there is someone from Navahrudak in the White House,” said the fifty-seven year old businessman Boris Semyonov when approached what Navahrudak (the city’s Belarusian name) felt for the prominent post a Kushner would hold in a Trump White House: “I am waiting for him to visit us.”
The imagined proximity of Russia and Trump has been, in many ways, created on social media, as the rising numbers of bots based in Latvia or Estonia have prompted a rise in human tweets on social media, analogous to the rhythms of Islamophobia virally spreading on Twitter before theBrexit vote that diffused fears of Sharia Law–
–as was evident in the rise of “bots” created on Twitter to advance political clickbait before the Presidential election of 2016, later that year, for which the Brexit vote may have been but a rehearsal: in the months before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, almost a third of pro-Trump tweets between the first and second Presidential Debates deruved from automated accounts, or bots, in ways that seemed to seek to shape the outcome, wag the dog style, of the election, as bots swung online polls to declare Trump the “winner” of each debate in hopes to generate public opinion absolutely independent of the content of reflection on the debates; the expansion of a vast number of anonymous pro-Trump twitter users boosted conspiracy theories that drowned out “news” most often by bots whose accounts are randomized combinations of photographs, names, and surnames, who spew forth similar messages or emotional expressions.
Eagerness to promote the portrayal of a Trump administration in the Russian media that is widely consumed in Navahrudak, even despite clear similarities between local strongman Lukashenka and the faux populist themes in Trump’s Presidential candidacy, the notion that “Of course, Trump is closer to Russia–and hence to us,” even if the imagined trade between Belarus and the United States seems likely to emerge soon: the local “bump” of Trump’s election may be a product of the inevitable backlog of social media prominence of The Donald’s candidacy within eh online world in Belarus, rather independent of its actual economy..
Rae Kushner, of course, understood her own town as in north Poland in a community of 6,000 integrated but religious Jews, possessing an independent yeshiva, hospitals and strong cultural life, and were often schooled in Cracow; her hat-maker father shared a particular antipathy to Poles, who treated the family badly. Rae intensity in digging that tunnel to safety and survival from the Novgrugok ghetto that may reveal the intensity and tenacity of the Kushners. But Jared’s geographical vagueness ended up trying to place this “village” in a major Russian city, probably as the intent of the gifts was basically to suggest his ostensibly Russian roots. While Jared cast the arrival of a bag of soil from Belarus as “the normal course of events in a unique campaign,” it fit into a plan to promote US-American friendship, although it was cast by the not-so-quick-on-the-symbolism Kushner as just “a bag of dirt,” which he probably threw somewhere on the White House lawn.
Novgrudok was in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, although the region between Pinsk and Minsk was to change hands a few times, being subsumed into Russian empire before reverting to Poland in the 1920s, before it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R.–but was a clear site, carefully and precisely evoked by Rae in her life, though it remained a “village” that was probably pretty unspecific to Jared. (There has been an absence of public reactions to the transportation of Belarus’ sovereign soil out of the country from Lukashenka, which may have come from a nearby Russian military base Russia runs in Baranavichy, but also wouldn’t have helped his relations to Trump, Kushner, or Putin. But it seemed very Putin-esque to play on an old spatial imaginary of the Russian Empire and of the USSR at a time when he is seeking to redefine his country’s geopolitical status.)
George Matthius Seutter, Polonio seraphico observans (Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), 1753
The imperial imaginary that the trans-Atlantic transportation and presentation of soil from Mother Russia must have had some meaning for Gorkov or his compatriot Kislyak didn’t have much truck with Kushner, for whom Gorkov remained but a “banker” and Moscow existed as a Trump-friendly place, rather than ever having been an empire.
What all the symbolism of the soil might have meant to Kushner is most unclear: if someone in Moscow must have taken the classy banker, with western tastes, as best able to display a sense of kinship to Trump’s son-in-law, who had so tried to cast himself as a cosmopolite from New York, the Kushner’s much-vaunted orthodoxy is perhaps the best known thing about him save his problematic relation to the New York Observer.
Kushner’s orthodoxy is well-known. He regularly takes a day of rest on the Sabbath as Special Advisor to the President, and during the Trump campaign took the time to make a widely publicized pilgrimage to the Lubavitcher shrine of the grave of the late Rebbe Menachem Scheerson or “Ohel” with Ivanka–at the same time that an alleged attempt on The Donald’s life was averted in Reno, leading to much speculation that the visit brought divine intervention forestalling the threat on his life due to Schneerson’s intervention as election day approached: “Ivanka Prays – The Donald Saved! As Ivanka Was At Ohel Of Rebbe, Secret Service Rushed Him Off Stage,” exulted an ultra-orthodox website on November 5, playing with notions of salvation and the efficacy of prayer to the Rebbe; Trump returned triumphantly to the stage from which he had been whisked by Secret Service to pronounce “Nobody said it would be easy for us. But we will never be stopped. Never ever be stopped,” thanking law enforcement and his protection before vowing solemnly to the audience of believers to “Make America Great Again.”
While Trump’s cultivation of the legend of the “assassination attempt” seemed a media ploy, and appeared conveniently timed, it seems to have been interpreted in some circles as a benefit of a back-channel Jared had opened by gaining the blessing of the immortal Rebbe, whose favor for the Father-in-Law was evident in his life-saving intervention.
The sense of intercession perhaps provided some sign that the orthodox Kushner would appreciate receiving a bag of Belarusian earth later brought to him from Belarus by Sergei Gorkov, chairman of the Russian VEB, or state-owned Vnesheconombank, or ‘Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs,’ still under United States sanctions for its involvement in Ukraine–whose cash flow has recently turned negative, as it holds increasing state debt. When Gorkov arrived at the meeting bearing gifts of particular significance, as Kushner innocently recalled, as if he did not recognize the care that Gorkov hoped to communicate by selecting such items as a sign of his interest in the boy prince: “a piece of art from Nvogorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus” and, curiously, “a bag of dirt from the same village.” If only mentioned in passing to show their lack of any suggestion of collusion, the specificity of these gifts the revealed the research and sense of familiarity Gorkov took care to communicate to young Jared, suggested the message’s importance, though what it said hasn’t been clear.
Vnesheconombank has long focussed on Russian exports, and it was perhaps recalling this function that Gorkov, deeply tied to the Russian FSB and apparently having cut a deal with them, in December, 2016, brought a bag of Belarusian earth to the orthodox Kushner as a highly symbolic–and oddly personal–note from a man Kushner would only saw was important to meet since he was “someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration” at the time Kushner sought to set up a “back-channel” to Moscow. In a December 12 meeting with Kushner’s assistant, the promise of meeting with Sergey Gorkov–who Kushner described as just “a banker and someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together,” rather than a state agent with complicated ties to the Kremlin and head of Russia’s largest economic stimulus agency, funded directly by the state budget and a tool go national leadership–with a branch in Nizhniy Novgorod, not Vileky Novgorod, but raising questions of whether Jared might have mis-recognized the city from which his family hailed with this branch location.
But VEB is not just a bank of the sort that Trump or the Kushners are both used to taking loans and borrowing billions, but something far closer to an office of state, able to disburse funds in circumstances deemed necessary. Locations round the Russian periphery and near its eastern border suggest its status as a sort of para-state operation to pump funds into local economies; a broader range of covert government activities are suggested by charges against Vnecheconombank’s New York City employees recruiting foreign spies. Putin appoints and is in lose contact with its director, and the bank has been tied to the state despite its recently declining fortunes and net income–
Jared Kushner’s sense of innocence is not only an odd contrast to Gorkov’s tenacity. He seems to have been played with through the promise of ties to Moscow for the incoming administration, and his ambitions for a Russian Reset through his own backchannel. Kushner felt “Ambassador [Kislyak] has been so insistent” that he meet Gorkov “because Mr. Gorkov was only in New York for a few days.” But it’s hard to believe Kushner didn’t Google Gorkov before their half-hour meeting; Gorkov seems an attempt at an evocation of kinship if the presentation of a bag of Belarusian earth wasn’t recognized as a carefully planned sign, as well as a talisman by which Gorkov must have believed the diaspora Jew would be affected as a signal of his respect and recognition of Kushner’s tie to the city–although most Jews in Belarus’ ghettoes dreamt only of Eretz Israel in 1941–in ways that Gorkov may have believed analogous to the treasured earth from the Mount of Olives kept for scattering over burial sites in the diaspora, but remained a powerful symbolic tie for Jews before the war.
The bag of soil from the land of Kusher’s forefathers was rich with a symbolism that didn’t grab Kushner’s attention or his sympathy nearly as strongly as Gorkov and his circle had hoped. Of course, Belarus is not in Russia, but in the former empire; even if Gorkov would claim clear access to the city in the former Soviet, even if it was “close to Moscow” and militarily tied to Russia, their bonds aren’t clear. Did the “gift” of a bag of soil from the former imperial territory of Mother Russia which Kushner received in mid-December in New York City a proposal that the new administration in which he was to playa prominent role recognize Russia’s relation to the nearby city, and, by analogy, to Ukraine? Putin’s hopes to regain old imperial lands within the new Russian Federation is rarely openly stated or so prominently mapped, the presentation of the token of soil from outside of Russian bounds but in the old imperial territory recalls the hopes to recover a notion of nationhood rooted firmly in the nineteenth century–long predating the USSR. Reclaiming land outside of current state boundaries is closely tied to the mission statement of the VEB and to the “blood and iron” image of Russian Empire in which Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Latvia are central as part of the Baltic States. The presentation of this earth was part of a geopolitical vision, as well as providing an oddly off-beat appeal to the Jewish origins of Trump’s most trusted Presidential advisor.
Whatever the answer, the Special Assistant to the U.S. President only remembered the considered gift as a “bag of dirt”–without attaching symbolic or spiritual significance to its presentation. But the gift seems to have been carefully selected by Kushner’s visitor, probably with high-level approval, and the consideration about transporting a bag of earth from a region from where his family hailed seems intended as an attempted tie of affection. It also might reveal a bizarre post-Cold War political geography, seeking to create dialogue with the faith of the orthodox Jewish son of a real estate magnate in New Jersey in ways that carried messages about Russia’s newly expansive claims over areas of central Europe once part of the Russian Empire.
The centrality of Belarus to the Eurasian Economic Union has become increasingly clear, although Belarus is not eager to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. Why the head of the VEB decided to carry a bag of dirt from the former imperial territories, if not in the hopes to end the sanctions that had hurt his country, as well as to establish Russia’s prominent place in the EEU? VEB described the meeting as part of its ‘development strategy,’ rather than an innocuous encounter. Gorkov seems to have been sent to meet Kushner as something of an analog–a modern businessman–who Kushner would recognize, as not brash if owning two Porsches and a Mercedes Benz, both more worldly, down-to-earth and western than most oligarchs, and closely tied to IT, as well as being a tough deal-maker able to close agreements. The VEB presents a unique view of the Russian Federation, as well, mirroring geopolitical ambitions, closely tied to the Eurasian Economic Union.
The survival of the sanctions would have surely been on his mind when he met with Trump’s son-in-law, on the eve of the inauguration of the new United States President, with an open agenda. The issues of sanctions and Belarus are closely tied: not only has Putin been attempting, ever since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, to control the independence that Belorus has shown since that year, when Lukashenko fears the possibility of a simultaneous invasion or Russian military operation inside Belarus–but the greater proximity of Belarus to Europe–but Belarus has grown militarily close to China, as a joint missile system was developed between Minsk and Beijing, and trade with the EU declined significantly. “Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia,” Lukashenko observed on Belarus’ July 1 Independence Day, as he compared Belarusian-Russian political strains with its positive economic and military ties with China, amazed at Belarus’ “luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire . . . practically at the level of our relations with Russia.”
The relations between the countries were not easy, and long fraught, as Belarus sought to position itself with new alliances. Russia’s Sputnik railed against Belarus; in a July 9 article entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,‘” published by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik in English, to struggle against the transformation of “Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces” by the ‘siren call’ of the “forces of globalism and modern-day fascism,” embodied by the EU’s ambitious Eastern Partnership. Gorkov would have been familiar with the same sentiments in December, and was irked by the annoyance of Belarusian neutrality.
The earth from Belarus was, in other words, highly charged for Gorkov–both as a sign of his investigation of the Kushner family and Jared’s family values, and as a message about the geopolitics of Europe and the possible future relation of the incoming United States administration to the expansion of the European Union and the place in it of Belarus. (Lukashenko was very quick to refuse to recognize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while allowing joint military exercises and making public displays of affability with his former compatriot.)
Putin with Lukashenko, reviewing troops in Belarus in 2013
But Lukashenko may not have much choice, even if he is one of the world’s few remaining dictators. Did Kushner? Kushner may have professed to have not known what the meeting was “about,” but the longstanding fears of secret Russian involvement in the spread of ultra-nationalist parties in Belarus, apparently to destabilize the government of nationalist strongman Lukashenko by fomenting non-violent governmental change, revealed Putin’s attempt to influence the former Soviet republic run by the former leader of a Soviet, who cannily maintained his power while affirming independence from Putin’s Russia. Belarus is treading a fine line of independence, foreign economic cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union is something the European Union is far more interested to pursue than, say, VEB; Russia would also very much like to see the EU sanctions lifted on trade. Lukashenko’s nationalist proclamations, and rejection of Russian as a state language and use of Belarusian–“We are not Russian — we are Belarusians“–heightened tensions around trade disputes on energy pipelines, prices, and transit of gas to Poland and the European Union.
The question is not whether bright eyed Jared Kushner colluded–a term without definite legal meaning, but how he failed to pick up on an invitation for colluding, and why he missed it. Unless the mention of “Nvogorod” was more than a slip, and a signal of some sort of rejection of a proposal that didn’t seem worth the attention Gorkov had hoped. But Gorkov and his superiors clearly had some other level of collusion in mind by inviting a tacit recognition of a proximity akin to kinship over a month before the inauguration, and seem to have been looking forward to a newly proximate sort of relation to the thirty-six year old advisor to the incoming President: Kushner’s title as Senior Advisor was made official on January 9, reportedly without salary, before being named to head an Office of Innovation, although the Russian government seemed to anticipate his unexpected role as a sort of “Shadow Secretary of State” far more powerful in the administration than a Special Assistant. Despite insistence of no “improper contacts,” the propriety of the bag of Belarusian soil might be questioned beyond its clear symbolic value. For a President who had promised “improved relations with Russia” and committed to “make a deal that’s great” not only for “America, but also good for Russia,” the stakes were probably pretty high, and Gorkov’s mission on December 13 would have been delicate, probably involving the immediate loosening of sanctions.
The absence of any actual meaning in criminal law of a term like “collusion” suggests that his denial was a way of dancing around the issue, or just of keeping the conspiracy vague. Kushner is quite well-connected to Russians, and particularly Russian Jews with ties to Chabad, and perhaps over-eager for an Orthodox Jew to lump Russians and Jews: he is closely tied financially to a real estate money launderer of Russian heritage and birth, Lev Leviev, a colorful Uzbeki who allegedly transferred the skills of his father, a mohel, to diamond cutting, to which he dedicated himself after leaving a Yeshiva two months after he began his studies in Israel, who helped Kushner out with some massive loans and real estate transfers–including the purchase of the former New York Times building–and was until recently involved in construction projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: Leviev, known as the “King of Diamonds,” amassed an empire around the importing, cutting and polishing diamonds from Angola, Russia, and Namibia in Israel and Russia, raising many questions about the labor practices in his mines: despite trepidation returning to the former Soviets and Russia, Leviev did so after the intervention of none other than the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson, who earnestly encouraged him not to forget his fellow Jews,–perhaps a banality that assumed some significance in his career. Leviev not only continues to be tied to both Putin and Chabad, and is a partner of the Russian Prevezon Holdings, who recently settled a money laundering case in the United States on light terms and was under investigation for some time by the office of Preet Bharara.
The weird geography of international finance overlaps in odd ways with Rae Kushner’s heroic escape through a tunnel she dug through Belarusian earth underneath the walls of the ghetto of Novogrudok to escape from the ghetto has been improbably linked to the playing out of a conspiratorial drama of international proportions, in which a bit of Belarusian soil was brought, some seventy seven years later, to New York City, maybe as a carry-on item of the chairman of VEB, to be presented as a “gift” to Rae’s grandson. This wasn’t a simple gift, and was carefully selected. But if the bag of soil somehow procured from Belarus–and specifically from “the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus”–before being brought to an off-the-record meeting with the trusted adviser who was already central to Trump’s transition team as VEB feared facing the continued imposition of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Crimea. The desire to lift such sanctions immediately raises questions of the propriety the “gift.” “He told me a little about his bank,” Kushner testified to the Senate while not under oath, “and made some statements about the Russian economy.” Was the discussion not apt to range to topics closely related to the issues on the table for the bank, and did the oddly misplaced attempts to tug at Kushner’s heart strings not suggest a tone-deaf “restart” button? The anthropological oddity of the offering of earth, as much as a considered gift, not only fell on deaf ears but seems to have misread the ties to Novogrudok as a family residence.
Much as the activities of VEB are not those of a regular bank, or even a bank, the relationship they sought to cultivate with Jared Kushner had little propriety at any event. We’ll probably never know about whatever statements Gorkov made as he presented the bag of Belarusian soil which later became a “bag of dirt.” The new descriptor diminishes its symbolic significance, and paints Jared as having made time in a busy schedule for an amicable meeting. But it’s hard to believe that the symbolism was not lost, or that Jared could even consider placing the Belarusian earth atop Rae’s grave. Despite the deep paradoxes of Rae’s grandson placing earth reminiscent of the very earth through which she had clawed out of the ghetto over her final resting place in New Jersey–wouldn’t Rae have scolded him with some incredulity?–whatever the hopes of the higher-ups of VEB, they seem to have escaped Kushner. The late Rae Kushner had quite vividly recalled–and which she must have described in terms Jared must have often heard her retell–the blood-soaked earth of the shooting of the Novogrudok suburb where many of the 30,000 men and women brought from a ten mile radius around the city–after soldiers executed Jewish doctors, teachers, and lawyers in 1941 in a public square in a suburb of the city, staining its paving stones with blood as an orchestra played, Rae was brutally ordered to wash the stones in preparation for a public ball in the city. While an articulate woman, she would probably have scolded Jared wordlessly for accepting the bag of earth as if it were a friendship offering.
The location of the earth was very significant to the Russian Federation higher ups, if its significance or sybmolism may have passed Jared by. As Russia seeks to expand its imperial past, presenting the gift of a bag of earth from the old empire seems more of a demand to recognize the new geopolitics they intend to pursue. Such are the perils of having advisers without experience in international politics. Such is also the bizarrely shifting map of a post-post-Cold War world, where VEB hopes to forge ties to a new American administration by offering something close to a caricature of nourishing a spiritual attachment to a place of origin in the service of expansionist ends–as if transmuting Kushner familial pietas to affirm an expanding Russian military presence in what was once Eastern Europe grater than since the Soviet Union collapsed. The notion of appealing to Kushner’s alleged Belarusian roots seems a poorly judged symbol, but it was a potent one for a Russian Federation eager to remap broader European influence. Gorkov’s presentation of this bag of dirt might not have been recognized as a statement of geopolitics, but suggests one: it paralleled the long-planned military exercises of Russian military presence in Belarus and along the NATO border–a zone of influence on the western front of the Russian Federation–or “Zapad”–defended with increasing aggressiveness from 2014 with surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, from around the same time that Putin directed increasing attention to destabilizing the European Union. The planned 2017 military exercises of 60,000-100,000 air and naval units to be held from September 14-20, around the Baltic and North Sea, is widely seen as a test of NATO’s interest in protecting its member-states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland–and Donald Trump’s interest in endorsing Article 5 promising NATO’s collective defense. The Zapad exercises of staging a staging a military invasion of the Baltic without allowing any outside observation of the same 800 tanks involved in the exercises that appears a clear show of force in the very region from which Kushner’s family hails.
Russian tank exercise in 2013 outside Grodno, Belarus/Alexey Druginyn
The longstanding exercises of the Russian military in the “Russian West” have acquired increasingly offensive tones. Recent “Zapad” exercises of the Russian military in 2017 that are based in Belarus–and although the joint exercises Russia and Belarus will conduct to simulate a NATO invasion will pack in an unknown number of troops and although Belarus is not eager to accept many more permanent Russian troops, Zapad 2013 involved an uncertain number of troops–Russians declared “12,000” or perhaps “12,500,” but reports indicating the presence of up to 75,000 boots on the ground, as Belarus became something of a military staging ground for Russian strength–if not in actual preparation for the invasion of Crimea that occurred shortly afterwards.
–will include the greatest number of military troops to be involved in a military exercise without the observation of international observers, in ways NATO observers increasingly see as a hostile threat–if not, as Chatham House speculates, leaving a permanent military contingent in Belarus. While the stationing of troops might not occur, the threat to destabilize the European Union, a pet-project of Putin from 2015, the expansion of military presence seems an open reclamation of Russian earth.
Vladimir Putin watching Zapad exercises in Grodny, Belarus, in 2013 (RIA Novosti/Reuters)
“Nothing in the world could take us back/ to where we used to be,” as Mariah Carey sings in her 1990 hit, I Don’t Wanna Cry–recorded back in the very year Tim Berners-Lee and CERN collaborators unveiled the World Wide Web, using HTML to share documents across huge networks and URL’s to specify computer targeted and information requested. The coincidence of the design of such a document system that led TBL to build and design the world’s first web browser on an NeXT computer and Mariah Carey’s cooing soft-pop hit on only emptiness inside came together again in the release the WannaCry malware–malicious self-propagating code, able to exploit back-door vulnerabilities of Windows 7–which revealed a landscape from which nothing in the world can take us back to where reused to be.
But the data visualizations we’ve used to describe the lateral progression of the encryption of data files from hard drives around the interlinked world lent a new prominence to the World Wide Web as a conduit for targeting destabilization. It not only revealed how the world wide web has reshaped what we still call the world, but posed questions of how to map such a change, as even Microsoft employees in Redmond, Washington scrambled to chart the outbreak of malware after hackers exploited vulnerabilities in the unpatched Eternal Blue, in cyber attacks alternately known as WannaCry in 2017, and Non Petya when it later hit Ukraine, together with all companies, including large American ones, who did business with that nation, in an attempt to undermine its economic viability. From command central in what seems a concrete bunker of the future, before large screens, non-state Microsoft workers in Redmond, Washington tried to maintain a sense of security in their systems around the clock, and conduct repairs, in the weeks after the United States Department of Homeland Security urgently warned that out-of-date software was a global crisis and a national vulnerability. The malware just posed problems that local governments, municipalities, and law enforcement institutions could not bear, and which it seemed only Microsoft could be able to have manpower, incentives, and infrastructure to complete.
Wanna Cry left many literally crying for the sudden encryption of data, and many without services–and was intended to leave an unimaginable number of people desolate, if not quite with the absence of love that Mariah Carey wistfully evoked. But the virulence of its spread should offer a wake-up call to possibilities of global disruption we are still working to be able to track, map or fully comprehend in adequate fashion–but record as a virulent virus blocking systems most densely in nodes of a web-linked world.
New York Times
The very same visualizations indeed obscure, by oddly rendering it as distributed, the agency that underpins such carefully orchestrated cyber attacks of global consequence, by almost naturalizing its spread. For by moving the sites where data was most encrypted into a geographical frame of reference, the graphic doesn’t help orient us to its spread, so much as overwhelm us with the data-laden content to visualize a paralysis of global systems; it removes it from context or human agency, in order to capture the omnipresence of the self-propagating cyrptoworm as much as tell a story that helps to orient us to its spread. Perhaps that is what was intended.
The mapping of global disruption is perhaps a nightmarish puzzle for members of the interlinked world, and demands a place on the front burners of data visualization: the inadequate nature of considering the spread of systems-wide corruptions can be visualized by cases of the compromising of data, we lack the symbolic tools to grasp the rise of a new map of global dangers. While such data visualizations provide a terrifying premonition of the destabilization that might result from the encryption of data on a broad scale, they obscure the possibilities of specifically targeted attacks on data and visible infrastructure that are now able to be developed, and the nature of targeted threats that we have only begun to imagine. The redefinition in this new geography of document-sharing Tim Berners-Lee and friends developed has prepared the way for a landscape of interaction between removed places broadly adopted as a protocol for information-sharing– but one that, as Mariah Carey sung, and instigators of the malware hoped, left one only wanting to cry from behind one’s screen, devastated at the scope of the unforeseen swift data loss.
The data visualizations adopted to depict the flare-ups in compromised hard drives that the cryptoworm created in a manner of hours show the particular virulence with which malware crossed national divides in unprecedented ways, displacing relations of spatial proximity, geographical distance, and regional divides. In crippling databases including Russian and Chinese private and public institutions in but a day, demanding immediate payment for data to be restored, the ransomware raised the curtain on a new age of uncertainty. But was the threat eclipsed by the scale of the attack by which information was encrypted? If the spread of malware seemed to grow across computer systems without apparent relations, the distributed agency that was invested in how the malware spread worldwide seemed to obscure the possibility of agency of the attacks, concealing the tracks of any perpetrator by placing a problem of urgency on screens worldwide.
Websites of news media of record widely adopted animated data visualizations to orient their readers to the proliferating corruption of data on tens of thousands of computers and computer systems on account of the malware caused. Such elegantly animated maps don’t claim to be comprehensive, and are information-laden to the extent that seek to capture the unprecedented speed and range of the spread of the cyberworm launched Friday, May 12, 2017. We have trouble even comprehending or grasping the scale or speed with which the virus spread on systems, of course, and speed at which malware was propagated itself across networks and spread laterally across systems, rather than by geographic relations, working without a phishing hook of any sort but exploiting an NSA-developed backdoor vulnerability in the Windows 7 operating system to infect networks across national bounds, as it spread laterally across systems worldwide.
The spread of the encryption of hard drives data across space occurred in apparently haphazard ways, spreading globally in the first thirty minutes of across more advanced web-reliant regions of what we still call the globe. While their spread “followed” systems whose operating systems had not been fully updated, it is important to remember that rather than spreading laterally along a system of their own accord, their release was planned and released by agents, rather than being a casualty of the World Wide Web; a map of instances of hard-drive vulnerabilities however can offer few diagnostic signs or clues to interpret their spread, but offer only a catalogue of individual instances difficult to process in their entirety, so overwhelming and geographically dispersed was their occurrence to defy easy interpretation or processing–they provide little that might be suggested as forensic evidence about their spread.
If the growth of the virus’s spread across nations made it seemed to progress in ways that lacked a target, we may lack the tools to visualize the attack. The systems afflicted were not linked on a geographical register, and in some senses didn’t make sense to read in a map–but if they spread on internet traffic, the broad scale of the attack of ransomeware only foregrounded the fears of where it had arrived from or offer any signs to appreciate any agency within its systems-borne spread. But if the map seemed the best way to the speed of its growth, it was a distraction from the potential targeted threats of the malicious worm–until a lone British researcher, known as “MalwareTech,” saved the compromising of global systems as he serendipitously identified its kill switch to stop its spread: what dominated the headlines conceals the dangers of losing sight of the specificity of the wide-ranging attacks, even while registering them in real time.
The rest of the world could only sit in silence, as Mariah Carey once sung, and watch the range of attacks unfold in space in real time: something went wrong in the mode of sharing data across online systems that had to be couldn’t quite be understood. If Maria Carey’s hit single contemplated the definite break in time, “only emptiness inside us,” the shock of the screens informing users across the world that their data had been definitively compromised made then realize that any notion of data security vanished, and any hope for composure in the face of cryptoworms had disappeared, as Mariah Carey’s softly-sung lyrics described, and as far away as a network-free world, or one where inter-connected users didn’t define the primary routes of its transmission, without considering the dangers of the compromised infrastructure–not only in banking, but in traffic system, airport controlling, water quality monitoring, and even traffic flows.
But we continue to rely on geographic registers, as if we can’t let go of them, and it is what we have to explain the global spread of compromised systems and a collapse of data security. The cryptoworm successfully obtained advanced user privileges that allowed it to hijack computer systems that allowed hackers to encrypt documents worldwide in one day, reaching such a broad range of hard drives to make it seem the attack was random or haphazard. The attacks used code to release a self-propagating worm that didn’t really move spatially, but progressed online, using a vulnerability for which Microsoft had released a patch only two months previous, in March, in devices that share files across local networks. After the patch arrived, we were still mapping its spread, and contemplating the prospects of the return of a similar virus, so clearly had it asked us to redefine internet traffic. But was did the broad spread of the worm and broad scope of systems compromises, which was quick to provoke deep fears of the vulnerabilities that exist from ransomware erase the targeted nature of a similar subsequent malware attack? The spread of thousands of infections in over a hundred–and then over a hundred and fifty countries–across hard drives across the world exploited the failure to update software systems so broadly to obscure the origins or coordination of such malware attacks, whose use of normal language to alert users of encryption made them seem as if it were an isolated standard operating failure, able to be resolved by individual payment–
–even as the malware crippled networks in different countries without having the appearance of any fixed target. And if masquerading as a form of ransomware, later variants of the cryptoworm suggested a far, far scarier version of the scope of data corruption.
We were of course struck by the unprecedented speed with which such worms replicated along these dispersive networks–following paths that are not made evident in the map of compromised hard drives provided by data security firms, which show the progression of a disease that, like a cancer, creeps invasively along a hidden network, suggests a nightmare of the distributed agency of the internet, invaded by a particularly vicious parasite that for a considerable amount of time even experts saw no way to resolve.
We can now watch the spread of internet attacks in real time, looking at the threats of hacking in real-time, in ways that reflect the emergence of the internet and World Wide Web as a real-time battlefield, even if this is only a representative tracking of hacking attempts tracked by Norse. It doesn’t include the ten millions of daily attempts to hack into the Pentagon, or the similar number of threats that the National Nuclear Security Administration tries to fend off–and the millions of attacks universities daily confront. But if we are apt to be mesmerized by the range of such attacks, impossible to fully comprehend or track, we’re likely to be overwhelmed by the serious fears of the security vulnerabilities of which they cannot but remind us, although the abstracted sense of a constant barrage of online attacks can remove us from all too real dangers of their infrastructural effects–and the dangers of destabilization of specifically targeted strikes.
And if we might do well to take stock of the range of attacks by hackers to which the United States is vulnerable, mostly from China and Chinese sources, privileging our country as the target of future strikes–
–we loose sight of their increasingly global nature, now that much of the software to exploit vulnerabilities is available in the Dark Net. The origins of such attacks aren’t really clearly able to be mapped–hackers are experts at deflecting or rerouting their signals, and bouncing around their traces to make hacks that are located from one site appear to emanate from another from another. And infrastructural vulnerabilities of infrastructure are increasingly on the table for nations other than the United States, often without the means to monitor such cybersecurity issues or strikes.
In an age when the pathways of internet links may have spawned spontaneous revolutions, uprisings, and unexpected results of elections, non-human communication and propagation of such malicious malware viruses seem an apotheosis of the absence of any agency–a worm that is able to replicate itself within hard drives world wide, removed from any intent. To be sure, the range of sped-up animated maps to track the progress of the viruses that compromised data across the world produced a sense of wonder at our vulnerability of a sort that has not been widely mapped since the Cold War: the images generated of internet threats mirrors the map of the danger of missile strikes that emerged in Life magazine back in 1945, at the end of the Second World War–only months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs, that increasingly stand as a premonition of the new nature of things to come.
Mutatis mutandi, the image of the visual culture of the early Cold War was adopted by the Russian internet security agency, the Kapersky Labs, as a strategy to image the globally expanding threat of hacking to compromise hard drives and data-based systems.
In an era that was defined as after or following the thaw of the Cold War, the internet emerged in 1990–just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded its thaw–as a new battleground to wage global conflict. To be sure, the cybermaps of phishing schemes and potential email attacks are traced by the Kapersky labs in real time, to monitor for global security on the interlinked world-wide online systems. But their dynamic images retain the symbolic structure of the arcs of a violation of national airspace to suggest the magnitude of the incursions into cyberspace they monitor and report on round the clock.
We continue to map the global spread of malware as if to wonder at its scale: the distributed compromising of data as an animated sequence of simultaneous flare-ups of intensity from yellow to burning red across the world, as if to pose the question of its communication in terms of spatial continuity and proximity. In some of the best data visualizations of the scare of WannaCry and Petya viruses, the brightly burning flare-ups signalled a fire that burned so brightly to become impossible to contain as if a metastisizing online cancer spread across the world’s wealthiest regions. Despite the power of the animated visualization, we may map it wrongly, as if to imply it can be diagnosed as a spatially transmitted contagion without a target or destination. In using the data-laden information of cybersecurity firms to map the occurrence of data corruption and systems infection, the political antagonisms and animosities that have fed the growth of malware are cunningly left absent from the map at our own peril.
Although these maps suggest the scope and nature of the self-replicating cryptoworm, they may take the metaphorical value of a computer virus in literal terms, as a disease map, or biological virus whose contagious could be explained,–like the famous Snow Map, created by a founder of modern epidemiology, Dr. John Snow, to devise a mode to convince readers of the transmission from a water source of the 1854 London cholera outbreak. Of course, the malware maps do not try to communicate the pathways or mechanics of the virus’ spread. For rather than showcasing an event that was planned and of human agency, and whose propagation was in some sense designed, they run the risk of naturalizing both the incidence of systems’ compromises and the malicious nature of the very phenomenon that they describe. While the meaning that each bring pixel cannot even be understood or processed in a global scale–its impact was local–the intensity of the outbreak seemed almost a skin disease on the surface of the world. The intensity of its transmission surely mirrors the density of online connections or an economy that was web-based, as networks allowed its contagion spread from Indonesia to Europe the United States, raising alarms as it seemed to actualize some of the worst fears of a cyberattack, of the de-empowered nature of a computer system suddenly devouring its own data, but like a faceless god, from 11:00 one Friday morning, so that by 1:20, the spread of the malware had dense sites of infection on five continents.
The local merged with the global, however, in ways difficult to map: the maps of real-time tracking of the spread of the worm across a grey, global map made it seem totally removed from human actors, in hopes to capture the speed by which the worm managed to rapidly to spread laterally across systems, using an onslaught of randomly generated IP addresses as a way to target an ever-proliferating range of hard drives through multiplying packets sent to remote hosts, whose own hard drives were hijacked, leaving anonymous-sounding messages of no clear provenance to pop-up on users’ screens, in ways that seem to imitate the “normal” logic of an algorithmic process entertaining the possibility of implicating the user in the encryption of their hard drive or the deletion of necessary valuable files.
The communication of the virus–a biomedical metaphor that seemed particularly unable to offer any diagnostic value, suggesting either the banality of the infection or its nasty spread–was not nosologically helpful, but suggested the virulence of its spread. The natural history metaphor of the worm–or, better yet, the coinage of the cryptoworm–better expressed the lack of clarity as to its provenance or the seriousness of its damage. Although subsequent investigations found that the first infections appeared, globally, on computers in India, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, according to SophosLabs, the stage was set for a three-pronged global spread–as if in a negative version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, moving from South-East Asia worldwide–that began from 7:44 UTC with such startling rapidity that it will demand detailed unpacking to understand the target or decipher any of the aims that underlay the attack, or the extent of its destructive scope. The spread of the self-proliferating worm was only stopped by the inadvertent discovery in the code of the ransomware of a kill switch, which allowed a security researcher known only as MalwareTech to register a domain name able to slow the spread of the infection in a compromising manner, effectively halting its viral spread. Despite the rapid proliferation of visualizations of the unprecedented sale of its virulence, in retrospect, it might make sense to ask whether the undifferentiated global nature of the visualization, while stunning, distracted from the malicious operations of its code, and what better metaphors might exist to describe the spread of something dangerously akin to cyberwar.
We only have a few cartographic metaphors to describe the lateral spread of online compromising of computer data and the infiltration of networks, because of the speed with which it spreads challenge human cognition. Even if it can be schematized in a format that suggest the density of data compromises or the amount of encrypted files, the visualizations offer a limited basis to orient oneself to the seriousness or the danger of these infections, which once they start offer little possibility of stopping their spread. The later visualizations of the global impact of the release of Wannacry network worm are usefully foreground the rapidity of its spread, and raise the specter of its unstoppability. But the visualizations of the rapid flare-ups of malware that infect hard drives and encrypt their data may conceal the targeting of instability. If the spread malware and ransomware have been primarily linked to extortion, the spread of self-propogating cryptoworms cannot only be seen in numbers of systems compromised: for they are released and created in order provoke instability, as much as for Bitcoin revenues. Although theft of data is usually seen as most valuable to the owner of the dataset, the potential interest in ransomware as a service–and much ransomware is now available on the darknet in different forms, suggests a needed growth in cybersecurity.
If ransomware collectively netted about $1 billion during 2016–and stands to become a growth industry of sorts–the latest Petya virus netted but $10,000, although the benefits of the attack might have been much greater–in the form of the disruptions that it creates, often not so clearly racked or visible in the data visualizations of its spread, whose animated explosions suggest its out of control migration across networks as wildly crossing boundaries of state sovereignty, encrypting data on computer systems across space as it travelled along the spines of the internet as if without any destination, as tens of thousands od systems were entered and compromised via ‘back door’ disrupting hospitals in the UK, universities in China, rail in Germany, or car plants in Japan, in ways that were far more easy to track as a systems collapse by locking its victims out of critical data that allowed their continued operation. The demand for ransom payments to restore apparently stolen data was a screen for the disruption of invasive attack on companies’ computer networks, whose compromising can only start to suggest the infrastructural disruptions they created as they rapidly globally spread, whose apparently anarchic spread revealed the new globalized nature of system vulnerabilities.
While malware is distinguished by the demand to hold hostage the encrypted files of one’s hard drive, the viral spread of worms targeting systems vulnerabilities can disrupt systems and infrastructure in ways particularly difficult to defend against. Although the attacks depend on failures to update systems and to preserve retrievable back-ups, the vulnerabilities invite disruptions on a scale only so far imagined in futuristic films. These apocalyptic scenarios are perpetuated by security firms–and by the video games of the global imaginary that require only greyed out background maps to treat data visualizations as having sufficient complexity if they register the intensity of attacks, even if this only gives cover for the malicious actors who perpetuate their spread. But the assault on systems by the backdoor vulnerability first discovered by the NSA, in its program for targeting and infiltrating select foreign computer networks, but now for sale on the Dark Web, may only raise the curtain on a far more malicious range of malware, able to backdoor systems that are connected to transportation networks, water treatment plants, traffic systems, credit card systems, banking and airport controlling, far beyond cel phone systems, and able to–as the attack, just before WannaCry plagued web-based systems, compromised IDT Corporation–evade security detection systems. While regular, complete and restorable systems back-ups may be the only response to ransomware, the possibility of already backdoored systems has lead to fears that the Shadow Brokers group who unleashed the Eternal Blue code from the NSA is a group of Russian-backed cybercriminals, and the hackers who released WannaCry who cyber researchers believe have tiedto North Korea, may raise the threshold on cyberwarfare of a scale unheard of in previous years.
“Nothing in the world could take us back/to where we used to be.” Golan Ben-Omi–who views the analytic skills honed in studying Torah as good training cybersecurity in the Chabad-Lubavitcher community– Chabad-Lubavitch communities are interested in preserving the integrity of their websites from profane pollution, but are attuned to the dangers of data breaches. The attack that was made on his company, IDT, by means of an NSA tool with the capacity to penetrate computer systems without tripping alarms–named “DoublePulsar”–enters the kernel of computer systems, or its inner core, to trip the connections between hardware and software that would allow hackers to steal systems credentials in order to compromise systems with far greater impact than earlier breaches and infections, appearing as ransomware, but perpetrating far more serious damage on a system. The sequential flaring of compromised computer hard drives suggests a landscape that Ben-Omi has been studying for over fifteen years–and believes that the analytical skills honed in the study of Torah will allow his students to analyze.
While we lack the tools to start to map disruptions on such broad scale, the If the attacks on hard drives that occurred in over one hundred and fifty countries on Friday, May 12, 2017 may have been a case of intentional disruption, but the Petya ransomware attack of July, which successfully targeted the same vulnerabilities, exploited similar vulnerabilities in a potentially more targeted weaponized manner. Although it “is only code,” the lateral spread across the spines of the internet created fears of impending disaster across the most digitally rooted areas of the world, spreading fears of data disruptions, crashes and infrastructure collapse whose potential won’t be able to be so clearly mapped for quite some time.
The terrain of the crypto worm’s spread is better able to be understood, if not quite familiar. During the most recent space of malware attacks left most untouched places those farthest from the most unreflective internet-dependent, the map only can suggest the real-life inconveniences that can hardly be captured by the burning flares of yellow-red bursting at spots across the globe at unprecedented velocity.
For while not only communicated–as at first believed–by malicious email attachments, internet links clicked by users whose unreflective response unleash lost data, frozen systems, or looted bank accounts, the spread of ransomware parallels the amazing intensification of net-dependence and systems-based communicative tools, revealed below in the new information ecosystems that have arisen, illustrated in the quite spread of Facebook use over a short amount of time.
The relation between online activity and real-time consequences are difficult to map.
All maps serve to help tell stories, and the intensity of Facebook connections suggest more than a huge time-suck of human lives: it reveals the increased homogeneity of the systems we use, and the similarity of what we see and read. But if all maps tell stories, the necessarily partial nature of the dense visualizations of the global disruptiveness of malicious attacks on computer systems seem compromised: while over-laden to challenge the abilities of viewers to process their content, they only tell the most superficial part of real-time story–the compromising of data–and not the consequences that the widespread collective compromising of hard drives will effect both immediately and in the long run. And here we get onto thin ice in terms of what can be visualized, and the limits of counting the datasets of the corruptions of computers or systems, and the difficulty of counting beyond the density of compromised hard drives to the real-world implications of systems’ collapse. One can only start to imagine the implications of such collapse in maps contracting the real-time compromises of computer systems, in ways that reveal the global nature of an infectious spread of malware, but also obscure the different places that might be targets of weaponized malware attacks.
What we can track is the most immediate end-product of the malicious attack, but it offers few clues to interpret the basis for the attack or indeed the different scale of its real-time long-term consequences.
The visualizations track an almost near-inevitable progress of red flares in internet-dependent hubs that appear to overwhelm viewers with their over-laden information in ways that run the risk of obscuring any sense of human agency–or intent–as if to track the spread of a virus across a system that lacks internal logic of its own. The intensity of attacks on computer networks tracked from the Wannacry ransomware showed the astoundingly rapid spread of the infectious cryptoworm that caused the attacks. But it presented them as if they were in fact geographically localized, but the disruptions were purged of any explanatory context, geopolitical or other. For the inevitability of the spread of malware that the images provoke–and the fears of the unstoppability of further crypto worms–may obscure the dangers of their weaponization. If the launching of cyberthreats is often depicted as a real-time war by cybersecurity firms as Norse–
–we may be increasingly in need of mapping the intersection of such live attacks on data and their real-life consequences beyond the compromising of datasets.
We were recently warned how the expansion of malware and ransomware would soon propagate over networks in more virulent ways. Earlier worms that infected hard drives as Conficker in 2008 and SQL Slammer back in 2003 or SamSam, spotted in 2016, offer but “a harbinger of a new wave of more malicious, tenacious and costly ransomware to come,” of even greater scale, warned Joe Marshall of Cisco Talos, with “bigger payouts.” Marshall warned of the greater goals of hackers to infect networks, and his warnings might be augmented by suggesting the dangers of hackers working with governments to use malicious code to “cast a wider net” through self-propagating crypto worms able to laterally traverse huge corporate networks as tools by which to target nations–and national infrastructure–in ways that the fear of network intrusion have only begun to come to terms. When Marshall and his co-author Craig Williams noted in 2016 that the rise of ransomeware was an “ever-growing problem” that will involve greater payments to restore databases in Ransomware: Past, Present and Future with greater “intrusive capabilities,” with the repurposing of network vulnerabilities, on a massive scale, presumably including the targeting of entire systems. The maps of data encryptions and corruptions that WannaCry caused worldwide served to capture these fears, and their broadly trans-national consequences; the trans-national nature of such a strike on hard drives may well obscure and conceal the strikes and intentions of other malicious actors. Although some believe payment the easiest option to retrieve data, as the worms are developed that target vulnerabilities in systems, they will potentially be able to compromise targeted banking, transportation, and emergency infrastructures.
Do visualizations of the immediate fears of the spread of one virus conceal concerns of the weaponization of such internet-born infections on specific targets and nations, despite the seemingly unplanned ubiquity of their spread across interlinked systems? Despite their shock, such visualizations of the intensity of compromised systems, often echoing hubs of internet service, raise pressing questions about how to map the operations and actors behind them that are far more complicated to process fully–and lie off of the map.
1. Viewing visualizations of such rapidly spreading worms that compromised computers on a global scale, one wants to be able to peel away layers of the visualization, to reveal, as layers of an onion, the networks along which the cryptoworm laterally spread and the extent of disruptions that its spread caused. For the scale of the disruptions, and the intent of the hackers or those who launched the malicious code, may only be revealed in a more localized map of the sorts of destabilization that cryptoworms might produce. While leaving us to wonder at the unprecedented scale of their recent spread over a few hours or minutes, the visualizations take geographical space as their primary register, blank background maps bleached of underlying history, may make them all the more misleading and difficult to read, as they are removed from human agency and context, and treated as an artifact of the spread of the reliance of increasing multinationals on internet services and web-based networks.
Differences in online activity are far less lopsided across geographic space than in previous years, as shown by the Oxford Internet Institute by a cartogram warping of global space showing the relative density of online activity by 2013 data, in ways that allow the broader targeting of systems to conceal a malicious attack on a country.
–which might also be read as a record of the increased vulnerability of specific areas, and the systems vulnerabilities might offer to compromise local infrastructure, and start to focus on the implications for those places. Doing so would consider the growing intersections between The Real World and the internet in a complex social continuum, where stability can be disrupted at select nodes more dependent on how worlds of finance, banking, shipping, health, and traffic are increasingly interlinked. Given the inevitable nature of such vulnerabilities, the frequent backing up and smooth restoration of backups are necessary to erase the growing threats not only of malware or ransomware, but the disruptions of critical infrastructure future attacks might allow.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!