Securing Democracy Dispatch

2019-01-22T15:38:18+00:00
January 22, 2019
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Our Take

ASD’s Thomas Morley argued that “a rising tide of populism, nationalism, extremism, and illiberalism continued to upend politics” in the past year, and these trends will likely continue in 2019, affecting elections throughout the transatlantic space.

ASD’s Bret Schafer and David Salvo joined the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America to discuss disinformation campaigns and their impact on democratic societies.

News and Commentary

Senate upholds decision to remove sanctions on Russian firms tied to Oleg Deripaska: The Senate fell three votes shy of the 60-vote threshold to overturn the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska: Rusal, EN+, and EuroSibEnergo. The administration agreed to remove sanctions this month in exchange for Deripaska reducing his ownership in the firms to less than 50 percent. However, the New York Times reports that the deal will allow Deripaska to retain majority control of the companies through proxies, while also allowing the oligarch to wipe out hundreds of millions of dollars of debt by transferring shares to a Russian government-owned bank. As explained by ASD’s Joshua Kirschenbaum, the Treasury Department was likely constrained in negotiations due to potential collateral economic damage to global aluminum markets. (The New York Times, The Daily Beast, CNN, ASD) 

U.S. government scrutinizes Chinese telecoms as tensions increase: Federal prosecutors in Seattle opened a criminal investigation into Chinese commercial espionage last week focused on three employees of Chinese telecom conglomerate Huawei, which is accused of stealing proprietary information on T-Mobile’s “Tappy” robot. In Washington, lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation aimed at stemming the flow of American electronic components to both Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese telecom firm embroiled in several scandals. Long Term Strategy Group’s Emily De La Bruyere and Nathan Picarsic warned that China seeks to build a “ubiquitous and universally used information network system…to bolster its national champions, increase the world’s reliance on Chinese technology and erode U.S. strategic advantages.” The Chinese government has escalated tensions, changing the sentence of Canadian citizen Robert Lloyd Schellenberg from 15 years of imprisonment to death. Many view the sentence, along with the arrest of two other Canadians in December, as retaliation for Canada’s honoring of a U.S. extradition request for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. China’s ambassador to Canada seemingly confirmed this speculation in a recent op-ed, while directing criticism at the West writ large. (The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, The Hill Times)

Facebook removes hundreds of pages linked to Russian government-sponsored media: On January 17, Facebook took down 364 pages and accounts run mainly by employees of Russian state-sponsored news agency Sputnik. The company also took down 107 pages, groups, and accounts, and 41 Instagram accounts connected to inauthentic behavior in Ukraine. According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, the accounts were primarily engaged in inauthentic behavior to promote Sputnik content to a wider audience in Russia’s near abroad, with many of the pages focusing on seemingly innocuous topics like tourism, fashion, and sports. The networks also spent approximately $160,000 dollars on Facebook advertisements since 2013, and reached over a million users in various countries. As noted by ASD, the majority of the pages were created in the past two years, with several of the newer pages under the management of a fake persona, indicating that the operation was active, growing, and potentially learning from the tactics of the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Ben Nimmo praised Facebook for its actions, commenting that this would be the “new normal” for any disinformation-linked pages on Facebook as well as other platforms. However, Kennan Institute Global Fellow Nina Jankowicz criticized Facebook for failing to identify the networks earlier and urged the company to invest more in cultural, political, and language fluency in the Eurasian region. (Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, CNN)

In Other News:

– The DNC said it was targeted in a spear phishing campaign after the 2018 midterms by what appeared to be Cozy Bear or APT 29 — a group linked to Russian intelligence agencies.

– A New York Times article exposed efforts of Huawei’s employees to win over European telecom providers.

– According to Buzzfeed News, new data from Facebook’s ad archive revealed that a network of campaigning groups spent more than £1 million on ads in an attempt to influence views on Brexit — but their sources of funding remain unclear.

– France fined Google around $57 million for violating Europe’s new data-privacy rules.

-The European Union sanctioned four senior officials from the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, over the Salisbury poisonings in March 2018.

– Canadian think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute released a paper suggesting that the “Canadian government should prepare for a protracted and aggressive information warfare campaign emanating from the Kremlin” in the run-up to federal elections this fall.

POLITICO’s Laurens Cerulus wrote about the possibility of foreign interference in next May’s European Parliament elections, going into depth on the three main types of feared interference: disinformation, data dumps, and hacking of election systems.

– Lawmakers and experts expressed concern about “deepfakes” which are doctored videos that look strikingly real.

– Russia analyst Mark Galeotti examined how the Russian government uses criminals abroad to further its own interests, including funding for illicit groups, employing hackers, and employing cybercriminals.

Quote of the Week

“We who share Kovrig and Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive, and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about traveling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts. That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result.” 

Open letter of over 143 diplomats and scholars to Xi Jinping concerning detained Canadian prisoners. January 21, 2019 

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