The Free Internet Project

Russian interference

US Senate Intelligence Committee Issues 4th Report on Russian Interference Based on 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment

 

On April 21, 2020, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee published the fourth and penultimate volume of an extensive report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Volume 4 is titled “Review of the Intelligence Community Assessment.” It examines the 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment (ICA) that determined that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. The Committee examined the sources and work behind creating the ICA, amidst the controversy over the U.S. intelligence investigation raised by the Trump Administration, which claimed it was politically motivated against him. The Senate Intelligence Committee report repudiates that notioin. In accordance with protecting the identities of the sources behind the ICA, much of the 157-page report has been redacted. The report unanimously concludes that the findings in the 2017 ICA back up the suspected aggressive propaganda campaign and interference conducted by Russia in the 2016 U.S. election.

Volume 4's unredacted factual background and the key findings of the examination of the ICA provide a clear view of the Committee's finding. The Committee's examination of the ICA was conducted by reviewing source documents along with interviews with officials involved in preparing the assessment. In reviewing the ICA, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) stated the committee looked at two key issues: (1) whether the final product of the ICA met the task assigned by the President; and (2) if the analysis was backed by the intelligence provided in the ICA. Burr concluded that the analysis and conclusion in the ICA were strong. No reason could be found to dispute the findings by the Intelligence Community. In a statement, Chairman Burr concluded: "The I.C.A. reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred. The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions.”

The warnings of continued Russian interference and also the vigilance needed due to continued interference for the 2020 election were reaffirmed in the ICA. Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 election to harm the candidacy of Secretary HIllary Clinton and to help elect then-candidate Donald Trump. The Russian interference did not stop after the 2016 election. Russia has continued to interfere with American democracy and the extent of the aggressive attacks as noted in ICA is not exaggerated, the Senate report determined. Both Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) concluded there is no doubt that Russia will once again interfere in the 2020 election as they did in 2016.

While much of the report is redacted, the key findings validate the 2017 ICA:

  1. The ICA met the task assigned by the President; providing a bipartisan analysis of the Russian interference. None of the individuals involved in the drafting of the ICA were biased to reach specified conclusions by a particular political party, because of this the ICA provided an accurate reporting of the Russian interference during the 2016 election.
  2. The aggressive and unprecedented nature of Russia’s interference on the 2016 election is well documented in the ICA. The reporting does not far exceed its reach, with regards to warning policy makers of Russia’s role.
  3. It is important to note that within the ICA no policy recommendation was made in regard to combatting future Russian interference. While it is all but assured that Russia will again interfere in 2020, no recommendations are given. The lack of policy suggestion is intentional. The intelligence committee themselves do not make any policy, they are simply set aside to provide detailed analysis and warnings to those in place to lawfully create policy.
  4. It is noteworthy that the ICA does not include much information about any attempt that Russia made to interfere with the election in 2008 and 2012. Instead making it clear the actions in 2016 were unprecedented.

The Committee did find that the ICA fell short in certain areas. While the ICA provided a comprehensive insight about 2016 and warnings about Russia’s continued interference, they did not delve into Russian propaganda through state-owned media platforms. The lack of insight into media networks such of RT’s coverage on the leaks from Wikileaks’ containing information about the Democratic National Committee would have aided in further substantiating the full brevity of the Russian propaganda.  

Volume 4 further substantiates the need for greater steps to stop Russian interference in the U.S. election. A fifth and final volume is expected by the Committee as part of its report on the Russian interference on the election.

-written by Bisola Oni

Why Voters Should Beware: Lessons from Russian Interference in 2016 Election, Political and Racial Polarization on Social Media

Overview of the Russian Interference Issue

The United States prides itself on having an open democracy, with free and fair elections decided by American voters. If Americans want a policy change, then the remedy most commonly called upon is political participation--and the vote. If Americans want change, then they should vote out the problematic politicians and choose public officials to carry out the right policies. However, what if the U.S. voting system is skewed by foreign interference? 

American officials are nearly unanimous in concluding, based on U.S. intelligence, that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential elections [see, e.g., here; here; and Senate Intelligence Report].  “[U]ndermining confidence in America’s democratic institutions” is what Russia seeks. In 2016, few in the U.S. were even thinking about this type of interference. The US’s guard was down. Russia interfered with the election in various ways including fake campaign advertisements, bots on Twitter and Facebook that pumped out emotionally and politically charged content, and through spread of disinformation or “fake news.” Social media hacking, as opposed to physical-polling-center hacking, is at the forefront of discussion because it can not only change who is in office, but it also can shift American voters’ political beliefs and understanding of political topics or depress voters from voting. 

And, if you think Russia is taking a break this election cycle, you'd be wrong. According to a March 10, 2020 New York Times article, David Porter of the FBI Foreign Influence Task Force says: "We see Russia is willing to conduct more brazen and disruptive influence operations because of how it perceives its conflict with the West."

What Inteference Has to Do with Political Polarization

Facebook and Twitter have been criticized countless times by various organizations, politicians, and the media for facilitating political polarization. The U.S. political system of mainly two dominamnt parties is especially susceptible to political polarization. Individuals belonging to either party become so invested in those party’s beliefs that they do not just see the other party’s members as different but also wrong and detrimental to the future of the country. In the past twenty years, the amount of people who consistently hold conservative views or liberal views went from 10% to 20%, thus showing the increasing division, according to an article in Greater Good Magazine.

Political polarization is facilitated by platforms like Facebook and Twitter because of their content algorithms, which are designed to make the website experience more enjoyable. The Facebook News Feed “ranks stories based on a variety of factors including their history of clicking on links for particular websites,” as described by a Brookings article. Under the algorithm, if a liberal user frequently clicks on liberally skewed content, that is what they are going to see the most. Research shows this algorithm reduced the cross-cutting of political “content by 5 percent for conservatives and 8 percent for liberals.” Thus, the algorithm limits your view of other opinions.

So, you might ask, “Why is that bad? I want to see content more aligned with my beliefs.” Democracy is built on the exchange of varying political views and dissenting opinions. The US has long stood by the reputation of freedom of speech and encouraging a free flow of ideas. This algorithmic grouping of like-minded people can be useful when it comes to hobbies and interests, however when it comes to consistently grouping individuals based on political beliefs, it can have a negative impact on democracy. This grouping causes American users to live in “filter bubbles” that only expose them to content that aligns with their viewpoints. Users tend to find this grouping enjoyable due to the psychological theory of confirmation bias, which means that individuals are more likely to consume content that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. So, all the articles about Trump successfully leading the country will be the first ranked on a conservative user’s Facebook newsfeed and will also be the most enjoyable for them. This filter bubble is dangerous to a democratic system because the lack of diverse perspectives when consuming news content encourages close-mindedness and increases distrust in anyone who disagrees.

During the 2016 presidential election, the Russian hackers put out various types of fake articles, campaign advertisements, and social media posts that were politically charged on either the liberal or conservative side. Because the Facebook algorithm shows more conservative content to conservatives and same for liberals, hackers had no problem reaching their desired audience quickly and effectively. On Facebook they created thousands of robot computer programs that would enter various interest groups and engage with their target audience. For example, in 2016, a Russian soldier successfully entered a U.S. Facebook group pretending to be a 42-year-old housewife, as reported by Time. He responded to political issues discussed on that group and he used emotional and political buzz words when bringing up political issues and stories. On Twitter, thousands of fake accounts run by Russians and computer robots were used to spread disinformation about Hillary Clinton by continuously mentioning her email scandal from when she was Secretary of State and a fake Democratic pedophilic ring called “Pizzagate.” These robots would spew hashtags like “#MAGA” and “#CrookedHillary” that took up more than a quarter of the content within these hashtags.

Facebook and Twitter’s Response to the 2016 Russian Interference

According to a Wall Street Journal article on May 26, 2020 and a Washington Post article on June 28, 2020, Facebook had an internal review of how Facebook could reduce polarization on its platform following the 2016 election, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives decided against the recommended changes because it was seen as "paternalistic" and would potentially affect conservatives on Facebook more. 

After becoming under increasing fire from critics for allowing misinformation and hate speech to go unchecked on Facebook, the company announced some changes to "fight polarization" on May 27, 2020. This initiative included a recalibration of each user’s Facebook News Feed which would prioritize their family and friends’ content over divisive news content. Their reasoning was that data shows people are more likely to have meaningful discourse with people they know, and this would foster healthy debate rather than ineffective, one-off conversations. They also mentioned a policy directly targeting the spread of disinformation on the platform. They say they have implemented an independent-fact-checking program that will automatically check content in over 50 languages around the world for false information.  Disinformation that will potentially contribute to “imminent violence, physical harm, and voter suppression,” will be removed. 

But those modest changes weren't enough to mollify Facebook's critics. Amidst the mass nationwide protests of the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, nonprofit organizations including Color for Change organized an ad boycott against Facebook. Over 130 companies agreed to remove their ads from Facebook during July or longer. That led Zuckerberg to change his position on exempting politicians from fact checking or the company's general policy on misinformation. Zuckerberg said that politicians would now be subject to the same policy as every other Facebook user and would be flagged if they disseminated misinformation (or hate speech) that violates Facebook's general policy. 

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey not only implemented a fact-checking policy similar to Facebook, but also admitted that the company needed to be more transparent in their policy making. The fact checking policy “attached fact-checking notices” at the bottom of various tweets alerting users that there could be fake claims in those tweets.  Twitter also decided to forbig all political advertising on its platform. In response to Twitter's flagging of his content, President Trump issued an executive order to increase social media platform regulation and stop them from deleting users’ content and censoring their speech.

With the 2020 U.S. election only four months away, Internet companies are still figuring out how to stop Russian interference and the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and political polarization intended to interfere with the election. Whether Internet companies succeed remains to be seen.  But there's been more policy changes and decisions by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitch, and other platforms in the last month than all of last year. 

-by Mariam Tabrez

How Russian Interference May Target Black Voters and Foment Racial Discord in U.S.

Russia is reportedly continuing its U.S. election interference tactics that it deployed in 2016, in particular targeting race as a method to depress minority voters and turnout. Russia stoked anger and fear through the spread of disinformation in the U.S. to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, as a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found [Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4]. Russia's primary method of disinformation used social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A March 10, 2020 article in the New York Times reports that, in the 2016 election, Russian "operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout." Russia is now expanding its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. elections. Russia’s current goal, according to multiple intelligence officials, is to create chaos within the United States by using racial discord as a wedge. American officials have noted several ways that Russia has tried to spread disinformation, create fear, and stoke anger. According to the NYT article, the two primary methods are (1) incentivizing white nationalist groups to spread more hate and (2) manipulating black groups by infiltrating them to create more divisions and fear. Race is being weaponized by Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2020 U.S. election. 

In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, black voter turnout was down. It is clear from Russia's 2016 disinformation campaign targeting minority voters, particularly black voters, that Russian interference is highly sophisticated and advanced. As noted in the New York Times article, many of the accounts on Instagram targeting a black audience dated back to January 2015. The Russian interference on the African American community goes beyond Facebook and Twitter voter disinformation. It is on Instagram and other platforms.  

With regards to the 2020 election, direct action is being taken now in contrast to 2016. The FBI has a Foreign Influence Task Force to investigate election interference. According to the NYT, "[t]he F.B.I. is scrutinizing any ties between Russian intelligence or its proxies and Rinaldo Nazzaro, an American citizen who founded a neo-Nazi group, the Base." A VOA article dives into efforts being made to decipher false information on social media.  Being aware of the role of Russia in the suppressing of minority and particularly black votes changes things. Various advocacy groups are taking actions to combat the disinformation and hold both social media platforms and government official accountable. "Social media companies pledged new security measures aimed at finding and removing coordinated manipulation campaigns before they spread fake content," VOA reported.

Many African American voters get their political news through the use of social media (50% in 2014). That is why it is imperative that they be made aware of Russia’s role in disinformation and also the ways in which they are being targeted. In an interview with NPR, Charlene Oliver of the Equity Alliance talks about how groups like hers plan to get out the black vote and the impact that knowing Russia’s role in 2016 has on their work. For many people, the effectiveness of Russia’s interference in 2015 came as a surprise. Now groups like the Equity Alliance are using the lessons from 2016 to drive their voter protection efforts for this year’s election. Oliver mentions that voter information is essential to combat online disinformation meant to suppress the vote. With advocacy groups working for direct voter education, others are working to hold government officials accountable.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, asked to be informed about the steps the United States Justice Department is taking or has taken to address the ongoing Russian interference on the election. In the letter they note how Russia has evolved in their spread of disinformation. The attacks have moved to areas of the web that are less monitored such as private groups on social media platforms and also private chat groups. In these groups Russia attempts to stoke racial tensions in America and evoke fears in an effort to keep voters away from the polls. The NAACP is asking Attorney General Barr to prohibit voter suppression efforts through the use of the Voting Rights Act and also through executive action to promote election security. They also note that African American voters must both contend with domestic and international voter suppression efforts, so it is imperative that policy action be taken. 

According to some legal experts, however, Barr seems to be protecting President Donald Trump, whose campaign benefited from the 2016 Russian interference. Barr is investigating the origin of the federal investigation into Russian interference, in an apparent attempt to discredit the Mueller Report and the entire U.S. investigation into Russian interference. In an op-ed, Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner list the questionable actions of Barr, "an attorney general whose loyalty to a president stands ahead of his fidelity to the rule of law."

With the awareness of the role of Russia in 2016, the spread of information in the 2020 election is being watched closely. As noted in the NAACP letter to Barr, Russia will not use all of the same election interference methods they used in 2016. New methods will be created. That is why greater safeguards should be adopted by both the U.S. government and by social media companies. It is unclear how the nationwide and international protests of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's brutal killing of George Floyd, along with the separate killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in Georgia and Kentucky, will change the dynamics of the 2020 elections. It is possible that, instead of depressing voter turnout, the protests will lead to greater voter turnout, with more people civically engaged and demanding accountability.

-written by Bisola Oni

Summary of Senate Intelligence Committee Report: “Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure”

On July 25, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published Volume I of a report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference.  The report stems from the committee’s bipartisan investigation into a wide range of Russian activities relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Volume I reaffirmed the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA)  that  Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards prior to the 2016 presidential election. According to the Report, DHS concluded that the Russian government likely researched the electoral system in place in all 50 states. In fact, by September 2017, DHS concluded that 21 states were explicitly targeted by Russian government cyber actors.

The Committee determined that “scanning” of election-related state infrastructure was the most widespread activity conducted by the Russian government prior to the election. Scanning is a form of reconnaissance where an adversary searches for weaknesses, access points, and vulnerabilities. Dr. Samuel Liles, Acting Director of Cyber Division for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, characterized these activities as “analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home. A small number of systems were unsuccessfully exploited, as though somebody had rattled the doorknob but was unable to get in . . . [however] a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door."

It should be noted that the Report provides no evidence that votes were changed, vote tallying systems were manipulated, or that any voter registration data was altered or deleted during the 2016 election cycle. Despite this, there is reason to believe that Russia will continue to escalate its interference in future elections. When testifying before the Committee, Michael Daniel, former Assistant and Cybersecurity Coordinator for President Obama, warned that mapping is done “so that [Russia] could actually understand the network [and] establish a presence so [they] could come back later and actually execute an operation.” Moreover, in an addendum providing the additional views of Senators Harris (D-CA), Bennet (D-CO), and Heinrich (D-NM), the Report states that “Russian operatives undoubtedly gained familiarity with our election systems and voter registration infrastructure—valuable intelligence that it may seek to exploit in the future.”

At the end of the Report, the Committee provided a comprehensive list of recommendations aimed at preventing Russia from interfering in future elections.

1.  Reinforce States' Primacy in Running Elections

The Committee recommends reinforcing the role of each state in administering elections while the federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information. This recommendation received pushback from Senator Wyden (D-OR) who calls for mandatory, nation-wide cybersecurity requirements. Wyden argues that Congress's constitutional role in regulating federal elections is well-established and that the Russian attacks are too complex and too serious to be left solely to state and local officials. Wyden went so far as to say that “[w]e would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army. We shouldn't ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia's cyber army.”

2.  Create Effective Deterrence

The Committee recommends that the U.S. establish an international cyber doctrine to limit certain cyber activity. This doctrine would be similar to the existing international norms and treaties about the use of technologies and weapons systems. The government should treat a violation of this doctrine would be viewed as a hostile act and will be responded to appropriately. The Committee made it clear that the U.S. “should not limit its response to cyber activity; rather, it should create a menu of potential responses that will send a clear message and create significant costs for the perpetrator.”

3.  Improve Information Gathering and Sharing on Threats

The Committee recommends that the federal government, state governments, and local governments should establish clear channels of communication between one another. While this may seem rather rudimentary on its face, one of the key components of information sharing about elections is security clearances for appropriate officials at the state and local level. Since the 2016 election, DHS has compiled a list of officials to contact in every state if there is a threat. In addition, DHS is seeking to obtain security clearances for up to three election officials per state. Lastly, federal officials are working to declassify information in order to provide the greatest possible warning to state and local officials without compromising our own national intelligence.

4.  Secure Election-Related Cyber Systems

Despite the expense, the Committee recommends that cybersecurity needs to become a higher priority for election-related infrastructure. To do this, election officials should work with DHS to evaluate the security of their election systems, voter registration systems, state records, and other pre-election activities. The Report stated that in 2016, “cybersecurity for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking.” The Committee additionally recommends that DHS creates an advisory panel to give expert-level advice on how states and localities run elections. Using this advice, DHS should develop procedures and processes to evaluate and routinely provide guidance on relevant vulnerabilities associated with voting systems.

5.  Take Steps to Secure the Vote Itself

The Committee recommends that states act with urgency to replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems. At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and remove (or render inert) any wireless networking capability. This is because paper ballots and optical scanners are the least vulnerable to cyber-attack. However, in order for paper ballots to be a legitimate means of tallying votes, there must be a secure chain of custody for those ballots. For this reason, the Committee recommends that states reexamine their safeguards against insertion of fraudulent paper ballots at the local level. Lastly, the Committee recommended that vendors of election equipment be briefed about the vulnerabilities in both the machines and the supply chains for the components of their machines.

6.  Assistance for the States

Finally, the Committee outlined its assessment of how the federal government can assist state and local governments in ensuring free and fair elections. State officials told the Committee the main obstacle to improving cybersecurity and purchasing more secure voting machines is cost. In March 2018, Congress appropriated $280 million in grants aimed at improving election security. Among other things, these funds will go toward replacing voting machines, hiring additional IT staff, updating software, and contracting with vendors to provide cybersecurity services. The Committee recommends that the Election Assistance Commission—the entity responsible for administering the grants—regularly report to Congress on how the states are using those funds, whether more funds are needed, and whether states have both replaced outdated voting equipment and improved cybersecurity.

Above all, this Report serves as a reminder that since 2014, Russia has been exploiting weaknesses in the American electoral system in order to sow discord and distrust among the American public. As former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, told the Committee, the Russians “might not be effective the first time or the fifth time, but they are going to keep at it until they can come back and do it in an effective way." The committee plans to release several more installments of its report in the fall, focusing on the "Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Russian interference, the Obama Administration’s response to Russian interference, the role of social media disinformation campaigns, and remaining counterintelligence questions."

Should tech companies do more for election security?: hard lessons from Russian social media warfare in 2016 U.S. elections

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, joined the growing number of high-profile individuals demanding that the U.S. government step up its regulation of big tech companies. In a June 2019 interview at the Economic Club of Washington, DC, Gates said, “Technology has become so central that governments have to think: What does that mean about elections?” Gates focused on the need to reform user privacy rights and data security.

This concern comes following the details of a Russian-led social media campaign to “sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed ‘information warfare’” outlined in Volume I Section II of the Mueller Report.  According to the Mueller Report, a Russian-based organization, known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), “carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” As early as 2014, IRA employees traveled to the United States on intelligence-gathering missions to obtain information and photographs for use in their social media posts. After returning to St. Petersburg, IRA agents began creating and operating social media accounts and group pages which falsely claimed to be controlled by American activists. These accounts addressed divisive political and social issues in America and were designed to attract American audiences. The IRA's operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of American persons and entities.

Once the IRA-controlled accounts established a widespread following, they began organizing and staging political rallies within the United States. According to the Mueller Report, IRA-controlled accounts were used to announce and promote the events. Once potential attendees RSVP’d to the event page, the IRA-controlled account would then message these individuals to ask if they were interested in serving as an “event coordinator.” The IRA then further promoted the event by contacting US media about the event and directing them to speak with the coordinator. After the event, the IRA-controlled accounts posted videos and photographs of the event. Because the IRA is able to acquire unwitting American assets to contribute to the events, there was no need for any IRA employee to be present at the actual event.

Throughout the 2016 election season, several prominent political figures [including President Trump, Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Michael Flynn] and various American media outlets responded to, interacted with, or otherwise promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA. By the end of the 2016 U.S. election, the IRA had the ability to reach millions of Americans through their social media accounts. The Mueller Report has confirmed the following information with individual social media companies:

  1. Twitter identified 3,814 IRA-controlled accounts that directly contacted an estimated 1.4 million people. In the ten weeks before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, these accounts posted approximately 175,993 tweets.
  2. Facebook identified 470 IRA-controlled accounts who posted more than 80,000 posts that reached as many as 126 million persons. IRA also paid for 3,500 advertisements.
  3. Instagram identified 170 IRA-controlled accounts that posted approximately 120,000 pieces of content.

Since the details of the IRA’s social media campaign were publicized, big tech companies have been subject to heightened levels of scrutiny regarding their effort to combat misinformation and other foreign interference in American elections. However, many members of Congress were pushing for wide-ranging social media reform even before the release of the Mueller Report.

In April 2018, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified over a two-day period during a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. These hearings were prompted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica—a political consulting firm with links to the Trump campaign—harvested the data of an estimated 87 million Facebook users to psychologically profile voters during the 2016 election. Zuckerberg explained that, when functioning properly, Facebook is supposed to collect users’ information so that their advertisements can be tailored to a specific group of people that the third party wishes to target as part of their advertising strategy. In this scenario, the third-parties never receive any Facebook users’ data. However, Cambridge Analytica utilized a loophole in Facebook’s Application Programming Interface (API) that allowed the firm to obtain users’ data after the users accessed a quiz called “thisismydigitallife.” The quiz was created by Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian American who worked at the University of Cambridge. Zuckerberg explained to members of Congress that what Cambridge Analytica was improper, but also admitted that Facebook made a serious mistake in trusting Cambridge Analytica when the firm told Facebook it was not using the data it had collected through the quiz.

Another high-profile hearing occurred on September 5, 2018 when Twitter Co-Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was called to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss foreign influence operations on social media platforms. During this hearing, Dorsey discussed Twitter’s algorithm that prevents the circulation of Tweets that violate the platform’s Terms of Service, including the malicious behavior we saw in the 2016 election. Dorsey also discussed Twitter’s retrospective review of IRA-controlled accounts and how the information gathered is being utilized to quickly identify malicious automated accounts, a tool that the IRA relied heavily on prior to the 2016 election. Lastly, Dorsey briefed the committee on Twitter’s suspicion that other countries—namely Iran—may be launching their own social media campaigns.

With the 2020 election quickly approaching, these social media executives are under pressure to prevent their platform from being abused in the election process. Likewise, the calls for elected officials to increase regulation of social media platforms are growing stronger by the day, especially since Gates joined the conversation.

[Sources: Mueller Report, PBS, Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, Vox I, Vox II]

FBI Confirms Russian Government Hacked Voting Data of Two Florida Counties

In the Mueller Report, Special Counsel Robert Mueller III concluded that the “Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” [Mueller Report link] While exposing the details of these Russian efforts, the Mueller Report identified one state in particular—Florida—as a key target of the Russian hackers (at p. 51). In Volume I of the Mueller Report, the Special Counsel’s Office indicated that the FBI believed the Russian government had gained access to voting data possessed by “at least one Florida county government.” In recent days, however, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other top officials learned in a series of confidential briefings that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security believe two Florida counties were hacked prior to the 2016 election.

According to the Mueller Report, a Russian intelligence service, known as GRU, sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election. The spearphishing emails contained an attached document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer. In spite of the breaches, the FBI have not found any evidence that there was any manipulation of voter data, vote counts, or election results in 2016.

Following the confidential briefings, a bipartisan choir of both officials and constituents demanded the identity of the counties that fell victim to Russian interference. In response, Gov. DeSantis acknowledged that he was required to accept the terms a non-disclosure agreement prior to being briefed by the FBI. The terms of the NDA reportedly prohibit DeSantis from confirming or repeating the confidential information to unauthorized individuals. Since publicizing this agreement, DeSantis has received significant criticism from an array of officials who believe the Governor should have pushed back at the request to agree to the NDA. However, the terms of a 2003 executive order require the FBI to obtain an NDA before people without security clearances, such as DeSantis and his staff, are briefed on sensitive or classified information.

Many advocates of government transparency have questioned DeSantis’s legal standing to sign an NDA on the matter due to the broad nature of Florida’s public record laws. Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said that a long line of past court rulings makes it clear that Florida officials cannot agree to keep a document confidential if it is shared with them, even if the official does not retain possession of the documents. However, Petersen concedes that an NDA would may be appropriate to protect confidential information given to DeSantis verbally.

With the next election approaching quickly, many Floridians are less worried about what happened in 2016 and more worried about how to prevent this meddling in the 2020 elections. Last year, the Florida Department of State distributed more than $14.5 million in cybersecurity grants for federal elections to the state’s Supervisors of Elections. In addition, the Supervisors of Elections were given $1.9 million dollars in state funding to purchase and install Albert network monitoring sensors. These sensors are used by election organizations to detect cyber threats and quickly alert officials when data may be at risk. Albert sensors were developed as a supplemental form of the DHS’s Einstein project, which focuses on detecting and blocking cyberattacks within federal agencies.

[Sources: Politico, Palm Beach Post, My Sun Coast, GovTech.com, Orlando Sentinel, Learn.cisecurity.org]

 

U.S. Cyber Command works with foreign nations to defend election security from Russian interference

On May 7, 2019, Maj. Gen. Charles L. Moore, the director of operations for Cyber Command, and other Cyber Command officers gave a rare briefing at its new Joint Operation Center.  According to the New York Times:  "American officials deployed last year to Ukraine, Macedonia and Montenegro, and United States Cyber Command officials said that their missions included defending elections and uncovering information about Russia’s newest abilities. Cyber Command will continue some of those partnerships and expand its work to other countries under attack from Russia, officials said Tuesday. The deployments, officials said, are meant to impose costs on Moscow, to make Russia’s attempts to mount online operations in Europe and elsewhere more difficult and to potentially bog down Moscow’s operatives and degrade their ability to interfere in American elections."

In an operation named "Synthetic Theology," Cyber Command took proactive measures to neutralize Russian efforts to interfere with the 2018 U.S. midterm elections by

  1. taking offline temporarily the Internet Research Agency, a Russian trollfarm and source of disinformation,
  2. sending direct messages to Russians propagating disinformation to identify them, and
  3. deploying U.S. officers in Ukraine, North Macedonia, and Montenegro to defend their networks and gather intelligence on Russian activities.  The commander of Cyber Command’s cyber national mission force, Brig. Gen. Timothy Haugh said the U.S. would continue such joint efforts with foreign countries.  [sources: cyberscoop and NYT]

FBI Director Wray Warns of Russian Interference in 2020 U.S. Elections

On April 26, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. elections.  The threat is significant and constant.  "“What has pretty much continued unabated is the use of social media, fake news, propaganda, false personas, etc. to spin us up, pit us against each other, to sow divisiveness and discord, to undermine America’s faith in democracy,” said Wray. “That is not just an election-cycle threat. It is pretty much a 365-day-a-year threat.” 

The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and NSA have all allocated resources to counter the Russian threat: According to the New York Times: "In response to growing threats from Russia and other adversaries, the F.B.I. recently moved nearly 40 agents and analysts to the counterintelligence division, the senior bureau official said in an interview this month. Many of the agents will work on the Foreign Influence Task Force, a group of cyber, counterintelligence and criminal experts. Officials have made that task force, initially formed on a temporary basis before the midterm elections, permanent. The Department of Homeland Security made its midterm election task forces permanent, folding them into an election security initiative at their National Risk Management Center. And the National Security Agency and the United States Cyber Command have also expanded and made permanent their joint task force aimed at identifying, and stopping, Russian malign influence, officials said."

Mueller Report on Russian interference in 2016 election released

April 18, 2019 - The Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III was released, in redacted form, to the public today.  The Report concludes: "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion."

"As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel's investigation established that Russia interfere~ in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

Download the Mueller Report here

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