Podcast: School Cyber Attacks and the Rise of Misinformation with Former Sec. of Defense Ash Carter

28 Min Read
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Photo: Ash Carter served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2017.

Welcome back to Shaping the FutureTM. For this special episode, we are joined by the Former Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter. Secretary Carter earned his bachelor’s degrees at Yale University, and earned his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was also a physics instructor. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University and M.I.T., as well as an experimental research associate at Brookhaven, and Fermilab National Laboratory.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

You can follow Shaping the Future wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or iHeartRadio.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Matthew Mugo Fields: Welcome to Shaping the Future, a production of HMH. I'm your host, Matthew Mugo Fields. Here, we'll examine leading issues in education, and I'll be joined by experts, innovators, and leaders to discuss how we prepare our students for an unpredictable future.

Today, I am happy to speak with special guest former Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter. With a truly unique career path as a research physicist turned defense administrator and innovator, Ash would eventually serve in the Obama administration as the nation's 25th Secretary of Defense.

Since leaving the Pentagon, Secretary Carter has returned to his roots as a scholar, and is currently the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

During his time in public service, Ash was awarded the Defense Intelligence Medal, the Joint Distinguished Service Medal, and five times he was honored with the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal. Ash is also a prolific author, with 11 books and over 100 articles to his name.

Secretary Carter’s unique background provided me with the perfect opportunity to ask about cyber security in schools, threats from misinformation, teaching media literacy, and of course, aliens.

Now, here is Secretary Carter.

Secretary Ash Carter: Thank you for having me. It's always good to be with you, Matthew.

Matthew: Likewise. So the way we typically start these conversations is we ask our guests to share a little bit about their educational journey and their background, and highlight in particular any educators or educational institutions that were extremely meaningful to you in your journey. So Ash, why don't you give us a bit of your origin story with a focus on education.

Secretary Carter: It's easy to do and it's heartfelt to do, because I'm one of these people who knows that none of us is self-made, and who is now one of you. In other words, I'm in the education business myself. That's what I chose to do after being Secretary of Defense. I could have been out doing nothing, just sitting on boards and so forth. Another way of contributing, now that I'm not running half the federal government, is to help a new generation come and do better than we did, and I think most of your colleagues or the audience are inspired by the same thing. So I just wanted to say, I'm one of you, and I get why it is so appealing to do.

I came from a public school, a city public school in Philadelphia. And I thought it was excellent. Looking back, no regrets. And with two things especially. I had really good, memorable teachers whom I look back on and say, “I would never have embarked on that area of curiosity or character if it weren't for Mr. So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So.” And I remember them all so well, and I always tried to be a good student, but I wasn't always a well-behaved student. I was one of these kids who was really itchy, Matthew, and I wasn't trying to be a nuisance most of the time, but I couldn't really sit still.

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Matthew: I can relate to that.

Secretary Carter: So they'd say, “Ash, stop shaking your legs,” or whatever. And I go, “Yes ma'am.” And then two minutes later, “I said, stop shaking your legs.” “Yes, yes.” And then two minutes later, “Okay, down to Mr. Poole's office.” And I just couldn't sit still. The other thing that I got out of public school was an abiding respect for the civic experience of being with lots of other kids from lots of other kinds of backgrounds, and in a really quality atmosphere. I think that was a great gift I got. And so school is one of the places where we teach civic life. That is, the ability to get along with other people, listen to other people, behave yourself, conduct yourself morally, recognize that society doesn't work unless we all pull together, no person is an island.

Nothing irritates me more than sitting with a business person who is telling me how self-made they are. And I usually start down a line that says, “Oh, that's interesting. How'd you get to here tonight?” And they say “Well…” And then I'll say, “Well, you have a company, right?” “Yes.” “You don't owe anything to the government and your fellow citizens?” It's baloney. And I really learned that. And I think it's important, and when you consider things like what happened in our country on January 6th, I think that kind of apartness and centrifugal force in our society...I think the school experience of young people, and making that one where they really think about their connection to other people is the cure for this centrifugal experience. So I was really lucky. And then I, completely to my surprise anyway, got into a college. A college I actually really wanted to go to. That is Yale University.

And I remember I thought it was fancier than I expected. And so I remember buying a V-necked, sleeveless sweater in the belief that I would look more like people at Yale in the sweater, which of course I didn't. But I knew I'd get an education there. And one thing that might be worth noting, Matthew, is that the audience is people who teach all kinds of subjects, and I had two majors at Yale. Not because I wanted the extra work, but because I couldn't make up my mind. And one was history, medieval history specifically, and the other was physics. And they are different, they just exercise different parts of your mind. And I was fascinated by both, and I couldn't pick. Now, the joke to me is, having been in Defense, is you found the perfect union of medieval and technology. It's a standard joke people make.

But in fact, I became a physicist first, so that one won out. But it was a tight race, and I do think that my subsequent career was influenced by both. And there's something in there to me, now that I hang out with the tech sector and I always have, and that's been an important part of my life. People always ask me, am I fan of STEM? And I know that's something that you think is important, but I hope you agree with the following: it is important, but not at the expense of other things. And the employers looking for leaders are not looking for narrow people, and they're not looking for quiet jocks, and they're not looking for coders. They don't mind if you know how to do these other things, and certainly don't want you illiterate in the technological sense, but they don't want you illiterate either. And so, one of the things that my school did was make me take everything. That includes gym. I don't think it's anybody's favorite part of life as a kid, but it got some of the itchiness out of me. It was a socializing thing.

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Matthew: Ash, there's a lot to take away from your educational journey. One of the things that stands out to me is this emphasis, as you said, on socialization, on relationships. When we talk to educators all over the country, that's one of the first things that comes up that is missing for so many kids right now in the midst of still grappling with the pandemic. And folks will say, “Yes, obviously the impact on academics is well documented, and that is a serious challenge, but arguably even more dire are these issues around relationships and socialization.” And folks are as concerned about that. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Secretary Carter: Oh, I think they're rightly concerned. It's not the same in our professional lives, in our personal lives, you can't do these things on screen. And I now teach the students, and I do my darndest, and I try to be innovative, and I've studied really hard and read books on how to do this. When COVID hit, I tried to be as good at it, at delivering, as I possibly could be. But you know that the learning isn't between you and the student; it's among the students, and they lose that or a lot of that online. So I think it's hurt. And we'll all look back and say, "This is a year that was kind of surgically removed from our life experience." And we weathered it. We're going to get on the other side of it, but I think we've paid a price that I think if I were a teacher, particularly of younger students, I would be looking over the next year to try to right that wrong as much as possible. That is, create as much communal experience as I possibly could, consistent with them having to learn.

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Matthew: I want to fast forward a little bit in your journey. You mentioned you're this hybrid, double major at Yale in physics and history. You then go on to Oxford to study physics, and almost pursue a career as a researcher. How does a guy who was a physicist become, as you mentioned, the person running half of the federal government? What was that transition like?

Secretary Carter: It was because some people reached down and helped me out. That's why. I didn't do it on my own, and I try to keep that in mind all the time and help people along their way. What happened was this. I had some senior, very famous people in the world of science and technology who had been part of the Manhattan Project era and generation and so forth. And not only did I learn physics from them, but they taught me that with knowledge comes responsibility. That was in that generation's spirit. And so, one day when I was busily being a physicist, one of them called me up and said, “There's an important problem in Washington in National Defense that is highly scientific and technological, and they need a group of physicists who can work on it, and I want you to do it. It will only take a year. Take a year off from your career and do it.” So I dutifully did.

When I got there, I found the following: I found that, number one, I was working on really consequential things. This is the height of the cold war, and I'm working on nuclear weapons-related issues. So there's nothing more cosmic than this. If we got this wrong and blew ourselves to smithereens, that would be the end of civilization. So it was daunting, but inspiring to work on things that really matter. The second thing, Matthew—and this was the cool part—is I was good at this. I wasn't good at everything, so I sat in a room and there were experts on foreign policy, and wise, old men and women of the Diplomatic Corps who had been in the world, and military leaders, and business leaders and so forth and I was, comparatively speaking, a pipsqueak, but I did know physics. That was my contribution.

And so, if you have the combination—I tell young people this all the time—of work, doing something of consequence, and your knowledge and abilities make a difference. That's the best combination you can have in life. That makes it worth getting up every morning and going to work. “This is important and I can contribute to it.” And I found that combination really irresistible. And that was the beginning. So, there are two ingredients there. One is that intellectual combination, but the other is somebody helped me out, and it gets back to your teachers. These were the equivalent, 20 years later, of Mr. So-and-So and Mrs. So-and-So in school in Philadelphia. These are people who influenced me, and in this case, gave me an opportunity that I otherwise wouldn't have found on my own. And so I really try to tell people that now, younger people.

Just before we were recording this, Matthew, I was having office hours by phone with students These are mature people, these are mid-career people in graduate school, but they're asking the same questions, like, “I can't decide. I could go back to my old job or I can get a new job. I want to go this way; I want to go that way. I don't know what to do.” And the advice I give, because I gave it to myself at all these forks in the road, was to ask myself this: “If tomorrow morning you had to wake up and go to place A or place B, which is more exciting to you?” And if you ask yourself that question, and not whether B is going to lead to C, is going to lead to D, or which has more money or whatever, but just the simple question of, "what is going to be satisfactory?" That works in every other way, because if you like what you're doing and are psyched by it, you will do it well. And that will carry you forward.

If you're doing something because you feel like you have to, or it's the next step, you won't do it well and that will lead nowhere. So there's something to be said for following your spirit and your nose, and that's what I did, and that caused me essentially to, first, augment, or supplement, or mix my career. And then I really became, over the eight years of the Obama administration and three different jobs in the Pentagon, I obviously was full time, but over the years before that I was a leader in national defense. But again, I didn't get there by myself.

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Matthew: Absolutely, none of us ever do. That's good advice that you're giving to those students. So you mentioned your career at the Pentagon, and I want to almost ask you to put that hat back on a little bit. I know you've moved on from the Pentagon, you're doing teaching, you're serving on boards. But I want to transition to this part of the conversation and have you wear your old hat, because there are a couple of areas where there are some threats, some challenges at the intersection of technology and security that you are an expert in. And some of those challenges actually play themselves out in the world of education.

So one example, that I'd love to get your thoughts around, is cyber security and data hacking—a very hot topic right now. I know you know a ton about it. School districts across the country, I think that the estimate right now is, this year alone, 550 or so school districts have had some sort of cyber attack and ransomware demands, et cetera. It's a hot topic, particularly as technology proliferates across education. We're in a booming ed tech ecosystem right now. What are your thoughts about that threat, and how folks out there in education should be dealing with it?

Secretary Carter: It is a part of life as far into the future as I can see. We built vulnerability into it. This is reflected both in hardware and in software and is now impossible to reverse, to start all over again. Although there've been people who proposed that, and designed entirely different computer systems. But the one we built, and that as a practical matter we're going to live with, is inherently vulnerable. And to that I just say, as a technologist, it is what it is. And therefore, this is something we're going to have to wrestle with. Now, it's not insuperable because the same technology helps you beat it. So the same organization that is probing around your attack surface to try to penetrate it, and is doing that in an automated or semi-automated fashion, you can turn that around and use that same automation as a patrolling century on your attack perimeter, to detect intrusions coming in or detect ex-filtrations going out that shouldn't be there. So this is something that is doable.

I think the principle problem, rather, that a school district faces is this, they're not experts on this. Most companies in the same way, unless they're a technology company per se, they don't do this and they're not going to have the top computer engineers working for them; it's just not going to happen. And so, most of us will end up buying cyber security. And that's fine because we buy all kinds of things, we buy cars and they've gotten pretty good; they don't kill you as easily as they did when I was kid anymore. They've got seat belts, they've got crash resistance, gas tanks that don't explode and all kinds of things. So over time you can buy protection, but the difficulty with cyber right now, and this is getting fixed, but slowly, is that a cyber defense system technically is made up of a bunch of pieces.

There are firewalls, and there are traffic analyzers and various pieces that go in, and for the most part, you still have to put it all together yourself. It's like you have to build your own radio. You could do that, you could buy the pieces, but how many of us want to build our own radio? But there is not a really well-branded, integrated product. That's surprising, I think, 30 years into the cyber era, but that is the difficulty.

If I were a principal, or a school superintendent or school board president, I would be saying to myself, “I know I need to be good at this. I don't need to protect myself against the Russians, thank God, because the Russians aren't going to come after a school district. But I do have to protect myself against some punk in my school who decides to be funny. And I've got to outsmart that threat, and practically, I'm not going to do it on my own, so I'd like to go out and buy something. But you can't buy something that does it all. So I've got to buy the piece parts and put them together, and I'm not very good at that. And it is one of the reasons why it is so hard to buy solutions.” It's getting better, but that's the essence of the managerial problem for most of us.

Matthew: Yes. I think part of what you're saying is just acknowledging that it's an area of vulnerability and challenge, and putting it on the management radar for district leaders is, in itself, important. I know you and I are both in Boston and there are some great smart people here working—companies and organizations—on this challenge, across industries. There are some interesting companies out there and even a few that are trying to do some of the integration of solutions that you spoke to.

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Secretary Carter: You get 99% of protection, really easily. Follow the basics. Make people have multi-factor authentication. Don't click on things. We had a staff assistant in the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff click on an attachment one day, and it took us months to get intruders out of there. Fortunately, it wasn't the classified network; that would be much, much harder. But still, you don't want the chairman's traffic to be out there. So a lot of this is training your people: Do what you're supposed to, put in patches when they tell you, and you're going to be 99% protected. Remember, the Chinese are not out to get you.

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I want to move, Ash, to a hot topic that intersects with education and security, and that's this idea of misinformation and the way misinformation has been playing out in our society. I know you've written eloquently in the press about this topic and the way that it plays out in schools is that there is an emphasis or at least a call for more media literacy. So tell us a little bit about your views on the threat of misinformation and what can be done about it.

Secretary Carter: It is a very serious problem, because the idea that the electronic ecosystem is a net betterment is a highly arguable point, unfortunately. It could be, but now it's net negative. It is isolating; it is anonymous. These people sit there and they fire off nasty things about other people, and they spread crazy and untrue things that as a scientist are particularly offensive to me, because science has some things that are true and false. They're not philosophies, they're not opinion, they are not political views. They're yes or no. Now, fair enough, some things we're still understanding and learning about, and scientists are guessing or trying to do their best, and it's not perfect, but there's a lot of scientific knowledge and certainty out there. And just in general, we should respect the mastery of other people, because none of us can know everything.

And the idea of authority and expertise itself has been questioned. I'm sorry to say that this has always been around, this tendency, but normally our senior leadership held the line. At least temporarily, our political culture has not only tolerated, but encouraged, untruth. And that may sound cute if you're trying to win an election or do one thing or another as a politician, but in the long run, it is corrosive to this sense of common purpose I was talking about earlier. One of the things that was true of network TV, is that we all watch the same thing every night. It was the same three networks, plus PBS. They were at least trying to be truthful and they weren't competing for audiences on untruthfulness. They were competing on nice advertisements on good snacks and all kinds of stuff, funny shows and so forth, but not on just playing untruth.

So I think that a sense of truth and respect for expertise is another aspect of citizenship. And it's part of saying, “No person is self-made. No person knows it all, either.” My wife always said that if you're listening to the television, some politician would be saying, “I'm not a Washington insider, and you don't want to Washington insider.” And there's something to that; I understand what they're getting at, but my wife always used to talk to me at that point, and she'd say, “Ash, if I get really sick, I want you to get me a doctor.” She said, “I mean, somebody with an MD who went to medical school. And if I'm in jail, get me a lawyer; don't get me somebody who says they're an outsider to the law.” It was her funny way of saying, “It isn't so bad to have a little experience.”

Obviously you can become encrusted if you have experience and you've stopped thinking or listening, but most of us don't know how to fly an airplane, and we certainly don't know how to design an airplane. And yet we go through our day implicitly, depending upon the truthfulness of all sorts of people who put this stuff in our foods and approved them and put the label on, and you can't have a modern, complicated society if we all have to understand everything; it's impossible. So you have to trust, and that isn't automatic. That's a cultural thing that says, “Well, we have standards in the medical profession, right? You can't just go out and hang a shingle and start prescribing medicine. That's against the law. You have to go through something which at least has a chance of making you good at what you're doing and transferring you to the wisdom of the ages, and of other people.” And that needs to be respected.

I think that we play with the truth to manipulate the present at our peril. I know it takes discipline, particularly for people in political life to avoid. First, they stretch the truth, and I get that, I understand why there's that temptation. But not to break the truth.

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Matthew: Yes. And we also know, the evidence is in, that misinformation often gets amplified via the algorithms and some of our social media platforms in ways that the truth does not, so it arguably takes the problem you're describing and makes it even worse, and it accelerates it. Ash, you've talked about this, both here and in other venues as a serious challenge for us as a society, what do you think educators can and should be doing to help confront this challenge?

Secretary Carter: I think that the educational process, in itself, is a moral lesson in truth. So I think if you're an inspiring, dedicated teacher, who engrosses students, and who behaves themselves well, I think it's incredibly important to model conduct for students. Even for mature students, like mine. I try not to misbehave myself, period, but specifically conduct myself as immaculately as I can in front of others. And for soldiers, I would always say to them, “I want you all to behave.” I'd tell officers and others in leadership roles in defense, “I want you to behave every minute as though some soldier's mother is watching you, and you have sent her son or daughter into harm's way. And imagine if she could see you now, would you look like the kind of person that she would want doing that?” And so I think it's important for us to model that by deepening people's ability to reason.

And there is some way in which ethics and truth go together, and it is by the discovery of truth that you discover that other people are thinking, that there are other ideas than your own. That there are some things that are just so, whether you like it or not. And education does that. You can't BS a kid who has had a pretty good education; they have a pretty good nose for what's crap. Now, they may say, “I want to believe that,” or, “I forgive that politician for telling me a bunch of crap.” And every once in a while they can be fooled, but that's part of giving foreign ideas a respectable hearing, but education makes you know how to put your foot down at the end and say, “This is right.” And so I think you're exactly right, Matthew. I think education and the myths problem go together.

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Matthew: What I hear you saying, which I think is profound, is that there is a direct connection between character and a commitment to truth. And your commitment to truth, if you're strong in character will allow you to encounter truth that you may not agree with, or even like, that you're still willing to accept because your character demands it.

Secretary Carter: That's exactly right. I think you're exactly right. And I just think the role of an educator is a solidly important one. In part, even if you're teaching people who are older, because you're getting them at a moment when they're opening their mind, and you owe it to them not to exploit them at that moment, but to help make them stronger at that moment. So, yes, it's a special moral responsibility. I always thought defending the country was a heavy thing, but I think teaching is a heavy thing too.

Matthew: I agree. I agree. I would be remiss if I didn't mention this, that there are lots of brave educators doing amazing work around this topic, mixing in media literacy, making sure that students are developing the requisite critical thinking skills required to be able to detect misinformation, making sure that you're using multiple sources. That's happening in classrooms all over the country, and some states are even starting to build standards around it. There's even some really cool education technology that's emerging in this area, where students are being assigned to figure out which is the misinformation, which is accurate, all that good stuff. So there're some things that, from a curricular and instructional perspective, educators can do on this as well.

Secretary Carter: Absolutely. Huge opportunity.

Matthew: From your vantage point, what are some things that we should be doing to prepare the next generation to successfully navigate these challenges, these risks that you've highlighted? What are some things we should be doing to prepare that next generation to thrive in this environment?

Secretary Carter: I think the most important ethic to get from education is the sense that knowledge brings responsibility. This is not a game. When you have learned something that has given you mastery—let's say you've taken psychology and you intend to go into social work or something—that gift which your teachers have given you, you owe something back with knowledge.

So I hope with education, there always comes a moral compass that I think is inherent in, “Knowledge is power, and power is responsibility.” And if you can just get over the middle stage in that step, I say to everybody, “People get drunk with the power step,” but you start with the knowledge and you get the responsibility, that's the key. I really think they go together; they're not separate things. Sometimes we act as though we have to teach ethics as a separate thing. It is. I mean you can teach it that way, but I think it's built into everything, and I think that it, right and wrong and truth and falsehood, are built into learning. And you are inevitably, unavoidably part of a moral instruction of people when you're an educator, and what's better to be doing? And now I have a huge amount of respect for people in education, so much so that I have obviously joined them.

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Matthew: I think that's absolutely wise. I do have one last question for you though, and I've been dying to ask you this ever since we met a few years ago. Having been the former Secretary of Defense, I'm assuming you have intimate knowledge of many secrets that our government has. Are aliens real?

Secretary Carter: No. Not that we've detected. I tell you as a physicist, it is actually quite odd. Enrico Fermi, a physicist, once said, “Where are they?” Because we can do a calculation which suggests that they've got to be out there. And by now they would have had every opportunity to let us know it, and yet they haven't. But we, in the defense department, we have seen odd things and we've recorded odd things, but never anything that we thought was an alien. And everybody wants to sneak into some of our test areas, and we don't allow that because we are doing sneaky things there, which we have to do, but we're not hiding aliens.

Matthew: Okay, so I'm going to take that as a “maybe.” Okay. I got it.

Secretary Carter: No. It's a no. They may be out there, but we haven't found them. The Defense Department hasn’t found any.

Matthew: Hey, Ash, thank you so much for your time. And thank you for your service, and your continued service as an educator, and I really appreciate you spending the time with us and giving the praise that is deserved to all the educators out there. Thank you.

Secretary Carter: Well, thank you. It's always good to be with you. Appreciate the opportunity.

Matthew: Absolutely. Take care.

Thanks for listening and learning with us. You can be the first to hear new episodes of Shaping the Future by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share with your network. Give us a shout out on your favorite social media platforms.

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