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The Securing Democracy Dispatch will be on hiatus next week. We will return to your inbox on January 5, 2021.

Our Take

We asked each of our experts to put forth one recommendation that would make the United Statesand the community of liberal democracies to which it belongssafer, stronger, and freer in 2021. Here’s what they said.

Democracies can outcompete authoritarian regimes across the political, economic, technological, and information domains by leveraging the advantages of open, transparent, and responsive systems, Co-Directors Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberger write in Foreign Affairs.

Authoritarians exploit the digital advertising ecosystem to target divisive ads at those they deem susceptible and to drive people to sites that peddle disinformation, Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer, and Non-Resident Fellow Clara Tsao write with Harvard’s Dipayan Ghosh in the first installment of our tech policy series.

The Treasury Department is uniquely poised to roll out policy, regulatory, enforcement, and diplomatic actions in the fight against corruption and kleptocracy, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph writes in a new report. He lays out actions that Treasury should take in the first day, first 100 days, and first year of the Biden administration. 

Russia’s sweeping hack of U.S. government and private sector organizations shows that shortcomings in detection, supply chain security, and prevention threaten the United States’ ability to defend against foreign interference in cyberspace, Program Assistant Joseph Bodnar and Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon write in an ASD blog post.

The 2021 NDAA takes encouraging steps to secure the United States from the threat of malign finance, improve cybersecurity infrastructure on both the federal and state levels, and emphasize research and development in the field of artificial intelligence, Research Assistants Nathan Kohlenberg and Thomas Morley write in an ASD blog post.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian state media and diplomats sought to characterize the attribution of the SolarWinds hack to Russia as part of a tradition of the United States blaming Russia for its problems. This narrative was accompanied by denials of Russian involvement and questions about the credibility of those accusing Russia. Russian messengers also responded to new details about the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny earlier this year, maintaining that the Kremlin was not involved. Finally, Russian state media continued touting the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, in some instances claiming its superiority to Western vaccines.

On the China dashboard, diplomats and state media accounts commemorated the December 13 anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, during which over 300,000 Chinese citizens were killed by the Japanese army. The Global Times used the anniversary to publish a graphic image by the same designer who produced the Australian soldier photomontage that caused an uproar two weeks ago. Like Russia, China continued its vaccine diplomacy push, with four of the ten most-used hashtags last week connected to the coronavirus.

Iranian diplomats continued their drumbeat of criticism over the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, while emphasizing that saving the deal is in the hands of the European signatories and that renegotiation is off the table. Supreme Leader Khamenei also explicitly threatened further revenge for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, noting that “this revenge will certainly happen at the right time.”

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News and Commentary

China used censorship, propaganda, and specialized software to control coronavirus information: The New York Times and ProPublica obtained thousands of internal documents from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s Internet regulator, that detail how Beijing sought to control information on the coronavirus pandemic. The documents reveal that China’s information manipulation efforts began in early January, before the novel coronavirus had been conclusively identified. In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered tighter censorship of digital media, prompting the CAC to implement aggressive measures to influence domestic and international opinion. CAC directives specified the stories that should be featured on news sites, how many hours they should stay online, and even the font of their headlines. They also banned certain words from headlines and reporting, including “incurable” and “fatal.” Local officials flooded the online ecosystem with propaganda and monitored public and private chat groups, with one district saying it had 1,500 “cybersoldiers” tracking closed chat groups on the app WeChat. Government departments also used a range of software to track online trends, coordinate censorship efforts, and manage large numbers of fake social media accounts. Chinese citizens who contradicted the government’s positions were investigated and in some cases detained. ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt has argued that China has sought to control coronavirus information in an attempt to shape perceptions of its governance model and its role in the international order.

Scope of Russian hacking operation becomes clearer: On December 18, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Russia was “pretty clearly” responsible for a sweeping hack of U.S. government, critical infrastructure, and private sector entities. The cyber campaign, which experts have linked to Russia’s foreign intelligence service and dates back to October 2019, was first discovered by the private cybersecurity firm FireEye, who then alerted federal agencies. The breach has reportedly affected over 40 federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, and Treasury, as well as most Fortune 500 companies. On December 17, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in an alert that the cyber threat constituted a “grave risk to the federal government” and would be “highly complex and challenging” to remove. Cybersecurity experts have assessed that the operation is part of a large-scale espionage campaign and was initiated through vulnerabilities within the government’s digital supply chain. ASD Program Assistant Joe Bodnar and Program Manager and Analyst Bradley Hanlon argue that the hack underscores the need for the United States to bolster its ability to detect cyber intrusions, strengthen its supply chain security, and improve its cyber defenses.

Social media platforms reverse policies designed to curb election-related misinformation: On December 17, Twitter announced it would reverse changes it made to its retweet function that were intended to limit the speed and volume of misinformation during the U.S. presidential election. Facebook similarly confirmed that it had rolled back a change in its algorithm that ensured authoritative news sources, such as CNN, NPR, and The New York Times, appeared more prominently than hyper-partisan outlets. Facebook also decided to begin allowing advertisers to run political ads targeting Georgia voters ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections, creating an exception for a ban that was put in place following the November 3 presidential election. Google fully removed its ban on post-election political advertising the previous week. A new ASD report recommends that Congress pass legislation requiring digital platforms of a certain scale to publicly disclose the entities and individuals who pay for all targeted digital advertising in order to guard against malign actors that spread undisclosed ads designed to divide audiences and distort the truth.

In Case You Missed It

  • Facebook suspended accounts tied to rival disinformation campaigns linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency and individuals connected to the French military that were competing for influence in the Central African Republic ahead of an election on December 27.
  • China’s Alibaba taught customers to use its software to identify members of the oppressed Uighur minority population.
  • Germany moved closer to allowing conditional use of equipment made by China’s Huawei in the country’s 5G mobile network.
  • The Justice Department charged a security executive for Zoom with interstate harassment for disrupting video meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre and targeting dissidents.
  • Suspected Chinese hackers stole surveillance footage from cameras across the African Union’s campus in Ethiopia.
  • The Commerce Department added China’s largest manufacturer of computing chips to an export blacklist over its alleged ties to the Chinese military.
  • President Trump signed legislation that would bar Chinese companies from the U.S. stock exchange unless they complied with U.S. auditing standards.
  • Twitter is planning to roll out a feature that identifies and labels automated bots on its platform next year.

ASD in the News

How China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats use Twitter to troll Beijing’s enemies, Vox. Interview with Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt

Revisiting 2020 Election Security, “GovExec Daily.” Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Chinese diplomats’ aggressive Twitter strategy on display in Australia dispute, VOA Cambodia. Cites ASD research

Japan to develop longer-range anti-ship missiles as China pressure mounts, Reuters. Comments from Co-Director Zack Cooper

Women civilians expected to be named to top Pentagon posts, Washington Examiner. Comments from Co-Director Zack Cooper

Biden defense pick is battle-ready, but is he ready for the right battle?, Washington Examiner. Comments from Co-Director Zack Cooper

Quote of the Week

“The United States faces untold numbers of cyber threats from malicious foreign actors, both to the government agencies and private industry, and sometimes both at the same time. The seriousness and duration of this attack demonstrate that we still have enormous and urgent work to do to defend our critical information and networks, that we must move quicker than our adversaries do to adapt.”

  • Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said on December 12.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.