Securing Democracy Dispatch

2019-02-25T14:53:53-04:00
February 25, 2019
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Our Take

ASD Co-Directors Laura Rosenberger and Jamie Fly published an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News arguing that “political divisions, which Russia’s efforts exploit, are hindering our ability to respond forcefully to this threat [of foreign interference].” Rosenberger and Fly will speak at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University on February 26 and the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs on February 27.

German Marshall Fund President Karen Donfried published a statement on the 2018 cyberattacks targeting GMF and other non-profit organizations across Europe. Microsoft announced its findings concerning these attacks on February 20th.

ASD Director Laura Rosenberger, in the Sydney Morning Herald, warned that, “The tactics of foreign interference operations often fall in bureaucratic seams, limiting democracies’ ability to see the whole threat picture or respond across all available tools.”

News and Commentary

Italian reporters expose plan to fund Lega party with Russian money: On February 21, Italian journalists Giovanni Tizian and Stefano Vergine published an investigative report detailing a possible deal between Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and the opaque Russian company Avangard Oil & Gas to “refresh La Lega’s coffers” before European parliamentary elections in May. Salvini’s spokesman and “consigliere” Gianluca Savoini reportedly brokered the deal, which also allegedly involved the Italian state-owned oil company ENI. According to preliminary investigations, Avangard Oil & Gas is connected to U.S.-sanctioned oligarch and Putin associate Konstantin Malofeyev. According to reporting by BuzzFeed News, Savoini maintains extensive ties to the Kremlin and to Russian far-right extremists in Ukraine, and frequently brings Italian right-wing politicians to Moscow through his Associazione Lombardia-Russia. The reported deal resembles the Russian-backed loan to finance Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in France. (Daily Beast, L’Espresso, Twitter, U.S. Treasury Department, Buzzfeed, Alliance for Securing Democracy)

Concerns over Huawei technology threaten to divide United States and allies: Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to stop sharing intelligence with allies that use Huawei equipment in their core informational systems, citing national security concerns. Despite U.S. pressure, Huawei is expanding in Canada and European allies such as Germany and the UK have noted that banning Huawei would significantly slow down efforts to upgrade to 5G. In contrast to statements from U.S. officials, UK intelligence officials have stated they believe the risk is manageable through audits to ensure that “UK infrastructure isn’t compromised by the involvement of the Chinese firm.” ASD’s Thomas Morley and Matt Schrader have cautioned against integrating Huawei technology into a country’s telecommunications infrastructure, noting that it could give the Chinese government “unprecedented tools to corrupt, influence, and subvert Western democracies.” (MIT Technology Review, Los Angeles Times, Wired, New York Times, Alliance for Securing Democracy)

Disinformation and cyberattacks spark election security concerns in the United States: Last week, Politico reported that, as the U.S. presidential primary season heats up, “sustained and ongoing” disinformation campaigns are targeting Democratic candidates Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke. The tactics, which are meant to inflame polarization and fragmentation among Democrats, are similar to those the Russian Internet Research Agency deployed ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Every Democratic candidate running thus far for the White House has pledged not to knowingly use stolen material in their campaign. ASD has previously called on all U.S. political parties and candidates to pledge to not weaponize hacked material, and has also encouraged media organizations to report cautiously and responsibly on leaked or stolen documents. (Politico, Oxford Internet Institute, Daily Beast, Alliance for Securing Democracy)

In other news:

  • The New York Times details how the Chinese government used a Massachusetts-based company and Yale researcher to improve its DNA database, which tracks Chinese citizens without their consent.
  • UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week to discuss legislation proposed by British policymakers to regulate social media platforms.
  • The New York Times examines the different ways YouTube celebrities reach stardom and how it might contribute to the platform’s challenges with misinformation.
  • The Moscow-based International Investment Bank plans to move its headquarters to Budapest, and Hungarian officials have offered staggering concessions to make sure that happens.
  • Twitter says it wrongly attributed 228 Venezuelan troll accounts to the Russian Internet Research Agency.
  • Stefan Meister of the German Council for Foreign Relations writes that the future of the EU depends on German officials siding with Eastern European allies and rejecting Nord Stream 2, no matter the domestic costs.
  • Google and Facebook have become “antithetical to democracy,” says The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff.
  • Bellingcat reveals its methodology for identifying and uncovering the murky past of the third Skripal poisoning suspect, Russian intelligence officer Denis Sergeev.
  • Russian prosecutors have requested the maximum sentence for two former cybersecurity officials charged with treason, reportedly for their 2016 contacts with U.S. intelligence.
  • The head of the UK’s cybersecurity agency delivered a speech discussing the nuanced challenges posed by the integration of Chinese technology into British telecommunications networks.  
  • The Verge speaks with Facebook moderators about the daily challenge and trauma of banning clearing content off the platform.
  • Facebook software is collecting data entered into other apps, even though it violates Facebook’s business terms that prevent app developers from sending health, financial, or other sensitive information.
  • Veteran intelligence officer John Sipher argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin has restored the country’s intelligence services to the powerful role they held during the Soviet Union.

Quote of the Week

“We have acted decisively to protect our national interests. The methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving, and this incident just reinforces yet again the importance of cybersecurity as a fundamental part of everyone’s business. The Australian government will continue to take a proactive and coordinated approach to protecting Australia’s sovereignty, economy and national security. That is why the government has invested in cybersecurity, including strengthening the Australian Cyber Security Centre by bringing all of the Australian government’s cybersecurity capability together in one place. Our political system and our democracy remain strong and vibrant and are protected. We stand united in the protection of our values and our sovereignty. The government has chosen to be transparent about these matters. This, in itself, is an expression of faith by our government in our democratic system and our determination to defend it.”

– Australian PM Scott Morrison, statement before Parliament concerning the recent cyberattacks on the Australian government, February 18th.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.