Securing Democracy Dispatch

2019-04-01T15:16:13+00:00
April 1, 2019
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Our Take

Following the conclusion of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, ASD published a fact sheet on Russian interference. As it illustrates, “Russian interference operations against the United States during the 2016 presidential election were vast and complex,” and involved a sustained, multi-vector campaign to “damage our democracy and divide our citizens.” Most importantly, that campaign continues today, and more must be done to secure U.S. democracy ahead of the upcoming 2020 elections.

ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt published a short piece in Axios calling on policymakers to take unified action to secure U.S. elections ahead of 2020, noting that “Russia’s meddling didn’t stop on election day in 2016.”

ASD Director Laura Rosenberger joined Fran Kelly of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to argue for a bipartisan focus on countering future authoritarian threats in the wake of the Special Counsel investigation. Rosenberger also discussed the need for joint action with New York magazine, arguing that a partisan response to countering interference would “play directly into Putin’s hands.”

ASD Social Media Analyst Bret Schafer spoke with the Los Angeles Times about concerns surrounding the 2020 elections, noting that other foreign governments may take a page from Putin’s playbook.

ASD Senior Fellow Joshua Kirschenbaum spoke with the Miami Herald about the importance of financial transparency in the fight against money laundering, which often serves as key vector of influence in democracies for authoritarian actors. Kirschenbaum has written previously about the dangers of opaque foreign investment and the need for stronger anti-money laundering (AML) legislation in the United States and Europe.

ASD Advisory Council Member and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 28th. In his testimony, McFaul highlighted the Kremlin’s authoritarian toolkit and how it makes use of those tools to pursue its foreign policy goals in Europe and North America.

News and Commentary

Facebook takes down inauthentic networks amidst calls for greater transparency: On March 26, Facebook took down over 2,600 Pages, Groups and accounts linked to Russia, Iran, Macedonia, and Kosovo for engaging in coordinated inauthentic activity. While the takedown represents an important step in preventing malign actors from manipulating the online information space, experts have expressed concern over Facebook’s lack of transparency. Although reports by the Atlantic Council’s Facebook-linked Digital Forensic Research Lab shed more light on Iranian and Russian-linked accounts, information on the vast majority of them has not been released. Over the weekend, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for more government regulation and oversight of the online information space. ASD’s Bradley Hanlon has noted that, while companies like Facebook have shown an increased willingness to share information, greater transparency with the public is necessary to empower researchers and perhaps inoculate users against the tactics of online disinformation. (Facebook, Washington Post, Medium, Twitter, ASD)

Election security a major concern ahead of 2020 elections: U.S. lawmakers and officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) highlighted the need to strengthen election security last week given fears of foreign interference in 2020. The Russian government exposed vulnerabilities in the American election infrastructure in 2016, and intelligence officials have warned that similar attacks — from Russia and other malign actors — are likely. In an interview, DHS Senior Adviser Matt Masterson outlined agency efforts to strengthen election security, including penetration tests and weekly vulnerability reports, but said that “resources remain a challenge” in providing broad infrastructure reforms. In Congress, Senators sent a letter to election system vendors lamenting “the lack of meaningful innovation in the election vendor industry” and the continued use of outdated voting machines that are sensitive to foreign hacking operations. ASD’s David Salvo and Josh Kirschenbaum have argued that efforts to secure election systems will need to be complemented by steps to pressure tech companies to secure their platforms, and by punitive measures to deter malign actors from future attempts at interference. (CNET, The Hill, NPR, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ASD).

UK cyber authority affirms Huawei fears: A report released by the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) last week “found ‘significant’ security problems” with Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s software development and supply chain, affirming broader fears of Huawei’s continued involvement in European 5G planning. U.S. officials have been lobbying their European allies to ban Huawei from playing a role in the development of their 5G infrastructure citing security risks due to the companies relationship with the Chinese government. The NCSC report specifically assessed that the identified vulnerabilities have no connection to the Chinese government; however, issues related to Huawei’s “basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene” would leave U.K. communications vulnerable to both system failure and attack from any number of state actors. Some experts have argued that these security fears are overblown – or perhaps manufactured to push back against China’s growing influence in global technology standard development. ASD’s Thomas Morley and Matt Schrader have argued that countries should refrain from integrating Huawei into their 5G systems, as failing to do so may provide the Chinese government with “unprecedented tools to corrupt, influence, and subvert Western democracies.” (New York Times, Axios, ASD)

 

In other news:

  • Brookings’s Alina Polyakova discussed upcoming Russian interference in the United States through the lens of Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s elections.
  • A law professor at Tsinghua University was suspended and placed under investigation after publicly criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
  • Human rights advocates have raised concerns about NSO Group, an Israeli spyware firm that has been implicated in abuses against political dissidents in authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
  • Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of the U.S. Cyber Command, discussed the steps that the U.S. Government is taking to shore up its cyber defenses.
  • Many African countries are partnering with Huawei to improve their internet infrastructure, despite concerns of Chinese industrial and political espionage.
  • As the West grows more concerned about Chinese strategic investments, China is spying on Israel in order to steal U.S. secrets, according to Foreign Policy.
  • The Russian government is testing whether it can disconnect itself from the global internet in favor of an isolated national internet.
  • Europe’s controversial overhaul of online copyright receives final approval.
  • Former U.S. intelligence leaders provided 2020 candidates with an unclassified ‘briefing book’ to counter “foreign election interference” as the primary season heats up.
  • The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has ordered Chinese investors to divest from Grindr, a popular gay dating app, due to national security concerns.
  • Tech companies are harvesting pictures of users’ faces to develop and refine their facial recognition software, often without users’ knowledge.
  • Misinformation spread across Facebook-owned Whatsapp is endangering India’s upcoming election

Quote of the Week

“When we imply that there is not an agreement on the issue of [foreign interference] we are falling into the trap of eroding trust in our institutions and we have to change our behavior, get at this threat because they are continuing to do it–they are very good and we are not prepared for that.”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “Hearing on Putin’s Playbook: The Kremlin’s Use of Oligarchs, Money and Intelligence in 2016 and Beyond,” March 28th, 2019

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