Securing Democracy Dispatch

2019-01-02T14:20:51+00:00
December 21, 2018
|

Dear readers, we will resume our newsletter after the holidays, on January 7, 2019. As the year comes to a close, please consider donating to the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD). Your financial support is critical to our efforts to defend democracy around the world against authoritarian interference. We wish you a happy and safe holiday break and New Year.

Our Take

ASD, in partnership with Graphika, released a beta-version of our “Information Operations Archive,” a searchable repository of more than 10 million posts connected to Russian and Iranian information operations on social media. We are releasing an early version due to increased research interest after the publication of two reports this week detailing foreign information operations on social media. Additional datasets will soon be added to this archive along with enhanced search features. We welcome community feedback to help make this tool as useful as possible for cybersecurity experts, disinformation researchers, academics, and anyone hoping to better understand the mechanics of information operations online today. 

In the last week, ASD’s Joshua Kirschenbaum published a policy brief with Financial Integrity Network’s David Murray, which proposes recommendations to help counter money-laundering in the United States. Joshua Kirschenbaum also co-authored a new policy brief with Peterson Institute’s Nicolas Véron, recommending the creation of a “European AML Authority” to help fight money-laundering. 

In his new report, ASD’s Bradley Hanlon analyzes the steps taken by Facebook, Twitter, and Google to defend against foreign interference, and recommends steps that the companies can take to “secure the online information space against foreign manipulation while ensuring American’s ability to engage freely in robust speech and debate.”

News and Commentary

he Senate released landmark reports on Russian disinformation in the 2016 election: On December 17, the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) released two reports providing thorough analysis of the Russian campaign to influence American political opinion in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. These reports investigated large quantities of social media data turned over to the Committee by various tech companies, and the conclusions fall largely in line with the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s (ASD) analysis throughout 2018. Below are key findings, with links to our relevant work:

• More than just Facebook or Twitter, Russian information operations traversed numerous online platforms, from Reddit and Tumblr to YouTube and Instagram. As ASD previously reported, each of these platforms plays a unique role in the information ecosystem, and disinformation narratives are often laundered across several platforms before being spread to more mainstream media outlets.

• Russian information efforts sought to seize on and inflame key divisive issues, such as racism, police brutality, and immigration, in order to divide and polarize American citizens. Through the Hamilton 68 Dashboard, ASD has regularly identified and exposed these efforts throughout 2018.

• Russian information operations impersonated local news outlets to infiltrate communities and spread targeted divisive narratives later on. ASD first reported on this phenomenon in June.

• Russian activity continued to escalate and expand after the 2016 election, matching a similar increase in budget for the Internet Research Agency. ASD has previously documented that foreign information operations are an ongoing phenomena, and target much more than just elections.

• While these reports are useful and insightful, relying on government-mandated analysis to reveal the extent of foreign interference is slow and unsustainable, as these reports published over two years after the 2016 election. Instead, as ASD has argued, Silicon Valley needs to institutionalize information sharing mechanisms with the government and researchers, and expand transparency efforts with the public. 

DC Attorney General launches suit against Facebook amid new revelations about the company’s data-sharing practices: Interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times revealed that Facebook allowed certain tech companies more access to users’ personal data than previously disclosed. The social media giant’s “special arrangements” benefited more than 150 companies that sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, dating back to 2010 and as recently as 2018. The Times also disclosed that Facebook partnered with Chinese company Huawei — which has been flagged as a security threat by U.S. intelligence officials, and Russian company Yandex, which has been accused of leaking information to the Russian government. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine is suing Facebook nine months after a whistleblower revealed that the company had allowed outsiders to harvest personal information about millions of its users. (The New York Times, The Washington Post

Chinese government hackers reportedly target Europe while U.S. brings charges: According to The New York Times, cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security revealed that Chinese government hackers breached a diplomatic communications network that 28 European Union states use to share information on foreign policy. The decision by The Times to report on the contents of the hacked materials, a practice ASD has raised concerns about in the past, was questioned by numerous experts. Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against two Chinese nationals, Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, for conspiracy to steal technology company secrets and intellectual property, as well as the personal data of more than 100,000 members of the U.S. Navy. According to authorities, Hua and Shilong stole information from at least 45 U.S. tech companies and government agencies, reportedly working as part of the Chinese government-linked “APT10” hacking group, also known as “Red Apollo” and “Stone Panda.” In a joint statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the alleged hacks “present a very real threat to the economic competitiveness of companies in the United States and around the globe.” The U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada joined the U.S. in condemning the hacking campaign. (The New York Times, CNBC, Washington Post, Twitter)

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