Dispatch (July 8th) from the Alliance for Securing Democracy

News and Commentary

Joint Staff report urges whole-of-government response to Russian malign influence: The United States still does not understand the scope of the Russian government’s aggression, including its use of disinformation, political influence, economic coercion, cyberattacks, and similar “gray zone” tools, according to a report released by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Jason Werchan of the U.S. European Command’s strategy division notes, “Russia has a growing and demonstrated capacity and willingness to exercise malign influence in Europe and abroad, including in the United States.” The report urges a coordinated, whole-of-government strategy to counter the Russian government’s malign activities globally. Echoing the report, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Christopher Krebs emphasized last week that China and Russia are highly capable and aggressive adversaries, which seek to manipulate and destabilize the United States. In a testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May, ASD Director Laura Rosenberger identified solutions to countering Russia’s malign financial influence, including enhancing financial transparency through laws that prohibit the formation of anonymous companies. (Department of Defense, Politico, CBS News, ASD) 

Online attack targets Sen. Kamala Harris after Democratic debate: During the Democratic Party primary debates, a network of Twitter accounts launched an attack on Sen. Kamala Harris, promoting conspiracies regarding the candidate’s racial identity and citizenship. Researchers and disinformation experts quickly identified the accounts and connected their behavior to previous unattributed influence efforts from 2018. According to CNN, conspiratorial narratives attacking Sen. Harris were spreading across smaller social media sites, such as Reddit, 4Chan, and Pinterest, for months before the debate. In response to the attacks, Twitter reportedly suspended several accounts for violating the platform’s policies against deceptive, misleading, or “spammy” behavior, though the platform asserted that it had not identified any bot networks spreading the narrative. ASD Non-resident Fellow Clint Watts has warned that domestic actors will likely adopt the disinformation tactics pioneered by foreign governments to target future elections. (CNN, The Hill, Twitter) 

U.S. reversal on Huawei sends mixed signals to allies: Amid European debates over 5G, the Trump administration last week announced plans to suspend the ban on U.S. companies selling equipment to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. The suspension marks a significant change in policy, as U.S. officials have been actively warning about the national security risks of forging close relationships with the company, citing concerns that the Chinese government may use Huawei technology for international surveillance purposes. Despite the reversal, the ban and government security reviews have reportedly made it difficult for European companies to roll out their 5G networks. Some countries, like the Netherlands, have not ruled out working with Huawei despite intelligence community concerns. ASD Director Laura Rosenberger has argued that the lack of a consistent message on Huawei makes it more difficult to convince U.S. allies to take security concerns about the company seriously. (The New York Times, CNBC, Reuters, Twitter)

In Other News:

• Observers worry that the upcoming 2020 census could be targeted by foreign hackers or disinformation efforts seeking to sow chaos and manipulate U.S. society.

• Despite high hopes for an EU early-warning system designed to combat Russian propaganda, the effort has produced limited results.

• Chinese authorities are installing surveillance software in the phones of visitors to the Xinjiang region, home of the country’s ethnic Uyghur population.

• Canadian intelligence is warning of foreign interference operations “seeking to influence the Canadian public and interfere with Canada’s democratic institutions and processes” ahead of upcoming elections.

• A Department of Homeland Security official warned state election officials to be wary of email phishing attempts by bad actors seeking access to state elections databases.

• A bipartisan group of senators introduced the Deepfake Report Act, which would mandate an annual study on deepfakes by the Department of Homeland Security.

• Researchers have commended Twitter for publicly releasing data from its anti-disinformation efforts, but limitations in the data sets leave some questions unanswered.

• In response to the UK Online Harms White Paper, the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee called for urgent legislation to protect elections from online interference.

• A Florida-based company received more than $1.4 million to air Russian government-backed Rossiya Segodnya radio programming constantly over a DC-area radio station between November 2017 and June 2019.

• Libya’s intelligence service has arrested two Russian citizens and accused them of attempting to interfere in the country’s upcoming elections.