Greetings, Codebook readers, and welcome to 2020! This is Axios managing editor Scott Rosenberg filling in at the helm here for a spell.
Today's Codebook is 1,488 words, a 5.5-minute read.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
If Russia's goal in meddling in U.S. elections has been to undermine trust in the democratic process, it has already won — and the U.S. isn't even starting to take the sort of steps that might reverse that outcome.
Why it matters: Free, fair and trusted elections are the cornerstone of the U.S.'s claim to moral authority. We're only beginning to fathom how badly Vladimir Putin has wounded the American system.
The big picture: While the U.S. government and security industry has focused on defending against cyber threats to election processes and voting machines, Russia has exploited our political divisions — and a U.S. president uninterested in stopping it — to sow doubt in American fundamentals.
In the 2016 election, Russian information operations, modeled on previous interference in nations like Ukraine and the Baltic states, hacked the Democratic candidate's campaign and relied on professional manipulators, gullible Americans and bots to spread propaganda.
There were many calls for a 9/11-style response to the 2016 attack, but President Trump has viewed efforts to investigate and defend against Russia's threat as direct challenges to the legitimacy of his own election win.
What they're saying: A C-SPAN/Ipsos survey last October found that barely half of Americans believe the 2020 elections would be conducted openly and fairly.
It's not all Putin's fault. The reasons for the distrust go beyond Russia's interference:
What's next: It may be too late to try to protect trust in U.S. elections and time to start thinking about rebuilding it from the ground up.
The bottom line: Russia set off an information bomb in 2016 that cannot be un-exploded. Putin's master strategy has been effective, and it's extremely difficult to counter.
Meanwhile: Monday the New York Times reported that Russian hackers from the military intelligence unit known as the GRU successfully targeted Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that once employed Hunter Biden as a board member.
Our thought bubble: Public awareness of the Burisma hack cuts both ways politically.
Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference on the shooting at the Pensacola naval base, Washington, D.C., Jan. 13. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
In a situation that greatly resembles the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the Justice Department wants access to encrypted iPhones tied to the Pensacola Naval Air Station shooting, Axios' Ina Fried reports.
Apple, for its part, is strongly hinting it will challenge a demand to do so — while President Trump is on a Twitter offensive demanding that Apple "step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW!"
Why it matters: Whether law enforcement has the right to access encrypted data on smartphones remains unsettled, and it's one of the most hotly debated issues in tech, with no clear middle ground.
Flashback: In the San Bernardino case, Apple challenged the FBI under similar circumstances. The case was never resolved legally, and it ended when the FBI withdrew its request after the agency had found another way into the phone.
Apple, for its part, said, "We reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation."
Our thought bubble: The New York Times reports that some inside Apple felt the Feds should have tried harder to decrypt the Pensacola phones using third-party tools before ratcheting up the confrontation so quickly.
For as long as there has been a Microsoft Windows, there have been Windows bugs, but this week's report of a major and massive security hole in the operating system came with a twist: The flaw was reported to Microsoft by the National Security Agency.
Why it matters: Instead of keeping knowledge of the bug to itself, holding onto it for possible offensive use as it has sometimes done in the past, the NSA chose to tell Microsoft about it so the firm could alert users and issue a patch.
This could mean that the NSA is turning over a new leaf. That's what Anne Neuberger, director of the NSA Cybersecurity Directorate, told reporters on a call Tuesday announcing the incident.
But it doesn't necessarily mean that. It's possible that the secretive security agency simply felt that the Windows issue — a flaw in a Windows module — was simply not of operational use. Or the NSA might have decided that the information was going to come out anyway and got ahead of the story.
Flashback: Any change in the NSA's stance is likely in response to the deeply embarrassing position the agency found itself in over the past decade.
NSA's efforts to restore trust have also included its Ghidra project, which last year released open-source tools for unpacking malware code.
House Democratic leaders pressed the Trump administration Wednesday on how it is preparing telecom companies for possible cyberattacks from Iran after the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.
Why it matters: Iranian hackers have been known to attack U.S. businesses, and fears that they could turn their attention to key U.S. infrastructure — including communications networks — spiked following Soleimani's death in an American airstrike.
Driving the news: House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone and communications subcommittee chair Mike Doyle want to know the steps the administration is taking to ensure telecommunications providers are prepared for possible cyberattacks.
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