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Coups d’etat in the age of the Internet

January 12, 2021, 6:01 PM UTC

One of the early lessons I learned as a journalist came in 2012 when I was covering the science beat for the Cornell Daily Sun. I was writing up the rare blooming of a Titan Arum, a giant Sumatran plant known as a corpse flower. (The plant smells like death when it blooms—a trait that attracts carrion-craving beetles and flies necessary for pollination.)

As I sat down to think through my lede, I stumbled. “On Sunday, March 18, Cornell’s corpse flower bloomed at…” Hmm, I thought. What time did it officially bloom?

As I studied up about the odd species, I discovered that its once-in-a-decade bloomings are complex processes that take up to two days to complete. Attempting to determine the particular time the corpse flower “bloomed” revealed my own misapprehension of the subject.

I was reminded of that revelation while reading about last week’s abhorrent Capitol Hill riots. On Monday, Fiona Hill, a former national security advisor to President Trump, wrote in an op-ed for Politico that the commander-in-chief’s actions represent a coup, a claim she does not make lightly.

At the outset of her commentary, Hill highlights people’s objections to the “coup” label. Some people argue the uprising wasn’t a coup because Trump did not call on the military to interfere with Congress’s certification of the 2020 election. Trump didn’t invoke his presidential powers in support of the insurrection (even if he did incite it), neither did he execute some secret takeover plot. Besides, the revolt was never going to be successful anyway, right?

Hill parries these points deftly. “These observations are based on the idea that a coup is a sudden, violent seizure of power involving clandestine plots and military takeovers,” she writes. “By contrast, Trump’s goal was to keep himself in power, and his actions were taken over a period of months and in slow motion.” Like corpse flower blooming, it’s a process.

The most authoritative study of the coup d’état remains Romanian historian Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, published in 1968. As Luttwak observed, most successful coups are speedy and armed. They often focus on eliminating opposition leaders, seizing control of the media, and restricting people’s movement and speech. The nimblest usurpers snatch power before anyone knows what has happened.

The world has changed a lot since Luttwak wrote his mutineer’s bible. The media landscape has been blasted apart by the Internet and hollowed out by tech giants, for one. Taking control of telegraph and post offices or TV and radio towers isn’t so easy, or effective, as it once was.

So, what does a successful coup look like in this new, media-decentralized environment? How does one establish regime change (or entrench an incumbent one) in a world where social media reigns, and where corporations can muzzle world leaders and out-of-favor communication services at will? Moreover, what will coups look like when, one day, as I and others expect, crypto technologies put content moderation decisions into the hands of online community members? I don’t know, but I suspect Luttwak’s pièce-de-résistance will need revising.

To Hill, Trump’s behavior qualifies as a coup “in slow-motion.” Similar to the Titan Arum’s blooming, this event didn’t happen all at once; the rot took place gradually.

Wednesday’s riots just made the reek unignorable.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

One-two putsch. Some interesting techie tidbits appeared in recent reporting on Wednesday's insurrection. A Washington Post article describes President Trump as paralyzed by inaction as he watched the riots unfold on TV. Meanwhile, a New York Times piece assessing the fallout for Trump Inc.—see: canceled golf tournaments, shunning by banks, media venture challenges—suggests that the outgoing chief executive might find favor with...a newsletter? Paging Substack.

Candle in the SolarWinds. Cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike released a technical analysis of the malware behind a wide-ranging, still-unfolding data breach known as SolarWinds, named after a company at the center of the compromise. The hackers used clever tricks to surreptitiously install so-called backdoors in software code used across corporate America and at least about a dozen federal agencies. In a separate analysis, Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky found similarities between the group's malware and code formerly employed by Russia's FSB intelligence agency, a successor to the Soviet Union's KGB. (Previous reports fingered Russia's SVR, another KGB successor, as the likely culprit behind the SolarWinds hack.)

Balls to the wall. First, just so we're on the same page, this is not a dirty reference. C'mon people, this is a family-friendly newsletter. Second, Walmart is dipping its toes more into the tech world. Not content to restrict its techie ambitions to owning a stake of TikTok, the superstore is teaming up with Ribbit Capital, a big backer of the IPO-bound brokerage Robinhood, to create a fintech startup. Details are sparse, but the venture aims to offer affordable financial products for employees and customers, CNBC reports.

Chaos roundup. Twitter banned 70,000 QAnon conspiracy accounts. Only one person showed up for a pro-Trump rally outside the company's San Francisco HQ this week. Facebook and Peloton are scrubbing "#stopthesteal" content from their services. Parler is suing Amazon for booting the service off its AWS cloud infrastructure. And House Democrats are going to investigate the role social media disinformation played in the lead-up to riots. 

From Russia with love.

ACCESS GRANTED

Tim Berners-Lee is back at it. The father of the world wide web is attempting to fix that wayward beast he brought into this world. Now as chief technology officer for Inrupt, a Boston-based startup that's raised $20 million in venture capital funding, Berners-Lee is pushing for personal data sovereignty. That is, he's creating tools to empower people to control and use their data as they see fit, as he explains to the New York Times. Sign me up, honestly.

“Pods,” personal online data stores, are a key technical ingredient to achieve that goal. The idea is that each person could control his or her own data—websites visited, credit card purchases, workout routines, music streamed—in an individual data safe, typically a sliver of server space.

Companies could gain access to a person’s data, with permission, through a secure link for a specific task like processing a loan application or delivering a personalized ad. They could link to and use personal information selectively, but not store it.

FORTUNE RECON

Tech’s underdeveloped moral compass is threatening our democracy by Sirish Raghuram

Still waiting for your second stimulus check? How to track down your money by Lee Clifford and Lance Lambert

YouTube is alone among big social media services in keeping Trump’s account open by Danielle Abril

A.I. in the beauty industry: How the pandemic finally made consumers care about it by Gabby Shacknai

Carnival lost $10.2 billion last year—but says it can survive 2021 without cruises by Maria Aspan

Former Airbus chief joins board of flying-taxi startup by Jeremy Kahn

PC sales have surged for at-home workers and learners during the pandemic by Aaron Pressman

These Fortune 500 companies are halting contributions to Republicans (and Democrats) in the wake of Capitol attacks by Phil Wahba

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access.Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

ONE MORE THING

When pushed, security reporters—including me—often recommend hardware security keys as the surest way to secure one's online accounts against hacking. But nothing is foolproof. Ars Technica explains how a clever side-channel attack can subvert these tools. All told, the mischief probably costs around $12,000 to pull off, a price tag that leads Ars to conclude it "would likely be done only by a nation-state pursuing its highest-value targets."

But cryptographer and blogger Bruce Schneier pushes back on that belief. "There are many other situations where this attack is feasible," he writes.