Our Take

On economic statecraft toward China, the Biden administration picked up where the Trump administration left off: seeking to restrict financial flows to China’s military-industrial base and limit the activities of Chinese companies that could vacuum up U.S. data, Senior Fellow Joshua Kirschenbaum argues in a new ASD blog post.

The 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics could be the target of Russian disinformation and cyberattacks as the Kremlin seeks to undermine democracies and retaliate against the ban imposed on Russian athletes for doping, Non-resident Fellow Clint Watts, Rachel Chernaskey, and Max Glicker conclude in a new ASD blog post.

Electronic pollbooks can improve the voting experience, but they are also prime targets for cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. Democracies must do everything they can to secure their election infrastructure, including e-pollbooks, Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine and the OSET Institute’s Edward Perez write in a new report.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian state media last week predictably decried the U.S. takedown of websites linked to Iranian propaganda, including Press TV, as evidence that the United States is selective about its commitment to safeguarding a free press. In many instances, Russian state media elevated claims from Iranian government officials and circulated the content in non-English language state-backed outlets. Russian state media and officials’ responses to a June 23 incident involving a U.K. warship sailing off the coast of Crimea primarily focused on casting the ship’s movement as a provocation and disputing the U.K.’s account of events. As usual with World War II anniversaries, the June 22 anniversary of Operation Barbarossa was marked by a diplomatic messaging push, including an article by President Putin in the German newspaper Die Zeit.

China’s propaganda apparatus last week highlighted and criticized Canada’s treatment of indigenous people as human rights violations, likely in response to Canada delivering a statement signed by 44 countries at the UN denouncing China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Chinese officials and state media also pushed back against criticism levied at Beijing following the closure of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, one of the territory’s last major pro-democracy publications. Some pointed to the United States’ recent closure of several websites run by Iranian state-owned outlets to justify Apple Daily’s shutdown. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also brought up a conspiracy about the coronavirus originating at U.S. military base Fort Detrick in two of its press conferences last week.

On the Iran dashboard, state media continued to blast the takedown of Press TV’s U.S. based domains, while reminding their readers that Press TV is back online at an Iranian-based web address. Press TV UK called the seizure the work of a “gangster regime,” while IRNA Français criticized the enforcement as “an illegal attempt by the United States against freedom of expression.” Press TV also invited a Canadian YouTube celebrity onto their program who alleged that the Press TV takedowns are a deliberate provocation to undermine the U.S.-Iranian negotiations around the nuclear deal. In domestic news, the supreme leader received his first (publicly acknowledged) vaccine dose last week.

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News and Commentary

United States takes down dozens of websites linked to Iranian disinformation: Last Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it had seized 36 Iranian government-linked web domains, most of which were associated with state-backed disinformation campaigns, taking them offline for violating U.S. sanctions. Thirty-three of the seized websites were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, and three websites were operated by Kataib Hezbollah. The blocked sites included Press TV, the Iranian government’s primary English-language television channel, and Al Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent. Last Tuesday’s takedowns were targeted at web domains owned by a U.S. company, meaning the outlets’ pages operating on non-U.S. domains were not impacted. Press TV and Al Alam both came back online using Iranian domain addresses. ASD Research Assistant Nathan Kohlenberg argued that while Press TV and other Iranian state-run news agencies spread disinformation, this seizure was largely ineffective and could bolster the victimhood narratives of the targets, who claim to be censored for speaking the truth.

European Commission proposes joint cybersecurity unit: The European Commission put forward a plan to set up a Joint Cyber Unit that would bring together expertise and resources from the European Union and its member states to prevent, deter, and respond to cyberattacks, including through the deployment of rapid response teams. The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity would oversee the unit, which would serve as a platform for law enforcement, cyber agencies, diplomats, military services, and private cybersecurity firms to share intelligence and coordinate activity. The Joint Cyber Unit would also help establish national and cross-border monitoring and threat detection capability. Moreover, the unit would provide regular reports and prepare and test incident response plans. The European Commission aims to have the unit fully operational by the end of 2022. ASD Cybersecurity Fellow Maurice Turner argued that the unit will establish a much-needed framework for multi-sector cooperation on European cybersecurity issues.

In case you missed it

  • The United States remains the world’s most capable nation in cyberspace, with China at least a decade away from matching U.S. capabilities, a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies found.
  • The president of the German parliament warned that the danger of foreign interference in the country’s September elections is “relatively great.”
  • Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, closed less than a week after police froze its accounts and arrested its top editors.
  • Executives at a French spyware company were indicted for selling surveillance technology to repressive regimes in Egypt and Libya that resulted in the torture and disappearance of opposition figures.
  • The United States and European Union launched a working group to address ransomware threats by coordinating law enforcement and diplomatic efforts.
  • The Australian Senate passed legislation that gives the government sweeping new powers to force social media platforms to remove harmful content.
  • The House Appropriation Committee included $500 million for election security grants in a proposed appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022.

ASD in the News

Learning from SolarWinds, War on the Rocks’s Net Assessment. Co-hosted by Co-Director Zack Cooper

How Trump officials sought to pin Covid on China, Politico. Comments from Co-Director Zack Cooper

The Disinformation and Democracy Action Plans: The EU’s response to a changing information environment, European Policy Centre. Virtual event with Program Manager and Fellow Nad’a Kovalčíková

Zack Cooper and Ali Wyne on ConversationSix, ConversationSix. Interview with Co-Director Zack Cooper

Quote of the Week

“We can no longer distinguish between online and offline threats. We need to pool all our resources to defeat cyber risks and enhance our operational capacity. Building a trusted and secure digital world, based on our values, requires commitment from all.”

– Margaritis Schinas, European Commission Vice President for Promoting our European Way of Life, said in a press release on June 23

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