Securing Democracy Dispatch

2018-10-15T16:11:15+00:00
October 15, 2018
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News and Commentary

Platforms move against U.S. actors engaging in inauthentic social media behavior: Americans on both the left and the right have begun to mimic the Russian playbook by creating fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to promote “falsehoods meant to mislead and inflame” in advance of the November midterms. On October 11, Facebook removed 559 pages and 251 accounts run by Americans for violating rules against spam and inauthentic behavior. The removal followed the company’s October 2 takedown of a domestic network of inauthentic Facebook accounts that were amplifying support for Republican Massachusetts Senate candidate V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai. Facebook removed the accounts after a Buzzfeed News report by Nina Jankowicz exposed the network. Earlier this month, Twitter also removed 50 domestic accounts that were masquerading as Republican state lawmakers. According to information warfare researcher Molly McKew, “There are now well-developed networks of Americans targeting other Americans with purposefully designed manipulations.” While the removals may raise potential first amendment issues, Ryan Fox, co-founder of disinformation-tracking firm New Knowledge, argues, “These networks are trying to manipulate people by manufacturing consensus — that’s crossing the line over free speech.” (The New York Times, Buzzfeed News, Facebook)

Senators introduce bipartisan legislation to secure electoral infrastructure as analysts highlight vulnerabilities: On October 11, Senators Susan Collins (R-MN), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced the Protect Our Elections Act, which would require state and local governments to conduct annual audits of election vendors to determine if they are owned by U.S. entities. The bill was introduced after it was revealed that a Russian company owned a sizable share of the company ByteGrid LLC, which runs part of Maryland’s voter registration system. Sen. Van Hollen emphasized that, “We cannot allow Russia or any other foreign adversaries to own our election systems.” Sen. Collins added, “We know that the Russians were relentless in their efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections, and that those efforts are ongoing …The Protect Our Elections Act would help strengthen the integrity of our election process and instill confidence among voters by requiring election infrastructure vendors to be owned and controlled by American citizens or our closest allies.” Meanwhile, bipartisan secretaries of state from Colorado and New Mexico praised the Trump administration for “trying to figure out how elections work” and for “making an effort, meeting with us on a local level, commuting to our local meetings, trying to learn: ‘What is it that you do here?'” However, the Daily Beast reported that coordination among federal government agencies on election security has been lacking. A recent report by watchdog group Common Cause also indicated that states reliant on computer voting remain vulnerable to cyber-attacks amid concerns that the wireless transmission of voting data over cellular networks creates an opportunity for malicious actors to tamper with results. American voters are divided along party lines on the subject of election security according to a University of Chicago survey. While eight out of ten Americans surveyed expressed some level of concern over the security of the upcoming vote, Democrats were far more likely to express serious concern than their Republican counterparts. (The Hill, Washington Examiner, Common Cause, The Daily Beast, McClatchy, AP News)

China surpasses Russia in cyber-attacks, as efforts to counter Chinese interference gain momentum: According to a new report by CrowdStrike, China has surpassed Russia as the “biggest state sponsor of cyber-attacks on the West.” Targets of Chinese cyber operations have included universities, government departments, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations, but the highest percentage of attacks, 36 percent, were directed at technology firms. CrowdStrike also reported that Chinese industrial espionage has increased in the last quarter. In response, Five Eyes, the worldwide intelligence sharing network made up of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, is reportedly exchanging classified information regarding China’s foreign cyber activities with like-minded countries, such as Germany and Japan, in the hopes of creating an international coalition against China’s cyber interference. (The Telegraph, CrowdStrike, Reuters)

Lawmakers seek to protect users’ online privacy as platforms suffer security breaches: Several Republican Senators, led by Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD), sent a letter to Google on October 11 criticizing the company’s lack of transparency in the wake of the Google+ privacy breach, revealed to the public on October 8. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called for tough repercussions for Google, suggesting the company should undergo a Federal Trade Commission investigation. Meanwhile, Facebook announced its largest-ever security breach on October 12 that compromised almost 30 million users’ phone numbers and emails, and even more detailed information for nearly half of them. Regarding the prospect of greater regulation of the tech industry in the wake of these revelations, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who considers himself a “tech-friendly policymaker,” stated, “we’re one event away from a reaction, maybe an overreaction, from the government.” (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN)

Germany’s regional elections upend Chancellor Merkel’s Bavarian allies: The Bavarian center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the regional counterpart to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), lost its absolute majority in Bavarian state elections on October 14, receiving 37.2 percent of the vote – its lowest share since the 1950s. The Greens won 17.5 percent, securing second place, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) winning 10.2 percent of the vote, enough to enter the state legislature for the first time. Some commentators blamed the loss on CSU’s leadership, which broke with Chancellor Merkel to pursue an anti-immigrant platform in order to win back voters it lost to anti-immigrant AfD, but which drove away many party loyalists to the pro-immigrant Greens. In response to the poor performance of her governing partners in Bavaria, Merkel said, “My lesson from yesterday is that I, as chancellor of this ‘grand coalition,’ must do more to ensure that this confidence is there and that the results of our work are visible.” Upcoming elections in Hesse are predicted to go poorly for the CDU, with the German newspaper Bild predicting, “If the CDU loses the government in Hesse, this will probably start a discussion within the CDU about Merkel’s position.” (Politico, The Independent, The Washington Post, Reuters)

Senators introduce bill to fund European energy diversification as Nord Stream 2 remains on track for 2019 completion: On October 10, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) introduced a new bill, the European Energy Security and Diversification Act of 2018, which would authorize “$1 billion in U.S. financing for European energy projects that, paired with increased diplomatic and technical support, will help diversify Europe’s energy supply and decrease Russia’s hold on the region.” In his statement, Senator Murphy noted that the United States has “rightly invested billions to shore up military defenses in Eastern Europe, but let’s not forget the equally dangerous implications of Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe.” Just a day earlier on October 9, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in 2019. The pipeline would double the existing export capacity for Russian natural gas to Germany and reduce Ukraine’s role as a key transit country for Russian gas. (Murphy.Senate.gov, Reuters)

Our Take

On October 15, ASD’s director Laura Rosenberger joined the European Political Strategy Centre’s High-Level Conference on ‘Election Interference in the Digital Age: Building Resilience to Cyber-Enabled Threats.’ Ahead of the conference, Laura published a “Think-Piece,” where she explains: “It is critical that decisions about whether to expose and respond to foreign interference be removed from a political context and understood as a national security issue.”

On October 9, ASD Director Laura Rosenberger published a blog post for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Power 3.0 blog in which she calls for a more coherent strategy among democracies to combat foreign interference by authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China. She argues that an adequate response must identify the defense of democracy as a national security priority, establish deterrence measures, increase resilience through transparency and public awareness, and unify the anti-interference effort across the government, private sector, and civil society.

ASD’s Joshua Kirschenbaum joined GMF’s Out of Order podcast to discuss special purpose vehicles (subsidiaries of a company that are protected if the company goes bankrupt), Iran, and the future of U.S. sanctions. Regarding the controversy around the second round of sanctions on Iran that are about to go into effect, he stated “In the context of the broader friction between the United States and the EU, there’s a risk of leading to further deterioration or to an effect that’s larger than the substance of this particular issue …There are many instances of the United States imposing sanctions without full EU backing, however this is a case of direct opposition, a case of the United States attempting to coerce the EU and undo and contradict its stated foreign policy.”

On October 9, ASD’s Kristine Berzina authored a new piece about the vulnerability posed by foreign funding to the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. She calls for increased EU oversight of campaign contributions and for pledges by national parties to refuse funding from non-EU sources: “Adopting such measures would help to address a critical vulnerability affecting the integrity of European elections, and would increase transparency on foreign attempts to influence elections across Europe.”

ASD’s David Salvo and Bradley Hanlon published a blog post on key takeaways from the recent exposures of Russian interference operations by European governments and the U.S. government: “The coordinated and collective unveiling of Russian operations by transatlantic allies was a crucial display of unity. It represents a step in the right direction toward more institutionalized information sharing on these types of threats, and also indicates an important willingness of allied governments to collectively attribute these asymmetric operations to the Russian government.”

Hamilton 68 dashboard

Accounts tracked by the Hamilton 68 Dashboard  this week shared content on a variety of U.S. domestic and international issues. Early in the week, accounts focused on supporting the swearing-in of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and calling for punishment of his critics. Kremlin-oriented accounts have focused on the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh for several weeks. Following the ceremony, pro-Kremlin accounts promoted various divisive messages, including strong support for the Syrian regime and heavy criticism of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in the wake of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

Quote of the Week

“As we have now changed our way of communicating, informing and, sometimes voting, we see the added value that new technological solutions can bring to democratic processes … At the same time, new technologies bring increased vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities can be exploited by external actors to interfere with the integrity of democratic processes and destabilize democratic governments through disinformation.”

 –Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, October 10, 2018 

 

Worst of the Week

Reports revealed that a viral video on social media, which depicts a young woman pouring a mix of water and bleach onto unsuspecting “manspreaders” in a St. Petersburg subway car, was actually fake and a piece of Kremlin propaganda intended to stoke divisions and inflame anti-feminist sentiment abroad. The video gained millions of views on YouTube after it was originally shared by In The Now, an English-language program owned by Kremlin-controlled RT that specializes in social media content targeting Western youth. A social media post from one of the actors exposed the video as a fake.

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