Dispatch (September 4th) from the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Securing Democracy Dispatch
September 4, 2018
News and Commentary
Efforts to secure the November midterms are still lagging: The Secure Elections Act, which seeks to improve the security of U.S. election systems, is currently stalled in the Senate. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), originally created in 2002 to oversee election integrity from the local to federal level, faces accusations of partisanship and criticism that it is not taking the threat of foreign interference seriously enough. Some election campaign managers have reported feeling ill-equipped to protect their campaigns from DDoS and phishing attempts, focusing their limited resources instead on reducing the sensitivity of the content in their digital communications. (Congress.Gov, The Hill, Yahoo News, New York Magazine)

Social media platforms take further steps to counter disinformation: On August 27, Facebook removed 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with Myanmar’s armed forces, who had used the platform to spread disinformation and incite deadly mob violence. Instagram announced the release of a new “about this account” feature which will allow users to access information about accounts, such as their location of origin and advertising campaigns associated with them. And Twitter will begin requiring organizations in the United States that purchase advertisements on political issues – such as immigration or abortion – to disclose information about themselves to users and to verify their location within the United States. As the social media companies take these steps ahead of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on September 5, Twitter and Facebook executives and security experts cautioned against expectations that they can completely stop the spread of disinformation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the current situation as an “arms race” that requires constant adaptation as malicious actors develop new strategies to exploit social media platforms. Meanwhile, the FBI launched a new website on August 30 to “educate the public about the threats faced from disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks, and the overall impact of foreign influence on society.” (The Guardian, Reuters, The Washington Post, The Hill, The New York Times)

Buzzfeed breaks story on Kremlin disinformation proxy in the Baltics: Buzzfeed News outlined how the Russian government funded and gave direction to a series of Baltic news sites, all under the name BaltNews, as part of a Russian information operation in the Baltics beginning in 2014. Under the direction of Aleksandr Svyasin, an employee of Rossiya Segodnya, the company that operates Sputnik and is closely connected to RT, BaltNews pushed pro-Kremlin narratives in stories on Crimea, sanctions, and tensions between the United States and U.K. Although the editor, Aleksandr Kornilov, was forced out as part of a criminal prosecution, BaltNews continues to operate in all three Baltic countries. According to Buzzfeed News, “The scheme worked like this: Money was channeled through shell companies outside of Russia, direct editorial orders [from Moscow] were delivered via Skype, and the sites reported back the headlines they published, while they also bought clicks and tested buying comments from Russian troll factories to boost numbers.” (Buzzfeed News)

China continues to expand online surveillance capabilities: A new article in the MIT Technology Review found that China continues to develop and deploy artificial intelligence to monitor Chinese citizens. China’s Uighur population remains a major target for the country’s security services, which have placed significant restrictions on information and travel in Xinjiang province. The UN has expressed concern that the country has “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.” And China continues to rapidly expand its capabilities. The state’s Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission announced the release of Piyao, a tool that will leverage artificial intelligence and public reporting to target and remove ‘fake news’ from the Internet. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have raised concerns over Internet censorship by the Chinese state, and more than a dozen groups have signed a petition urging Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to halt development plans on a search engine compliant with China’s demands to block certain search results. (Forbes Magazine, CNET, Associated Press, BBC)

Sweden sees surge in automation of accounts on social media ahead of general election: As Swedes prepare to go to the polls on September 9, the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) are expected to make large gains, potentially becoming the second-largest party in Parliament. On August 29, the Swedish defense research agency issued a report, which stated that automated accounts posting on Swedish politics on Twitter had almost doubled from July to August, and that those automated accounts “were 40 percent more likely to support the nationalist Sweden Democrats than genuine Twitter accounts,” with 47 percent of the bots supporting SD, compared to 28 percent of real accounts. (POLITICO EU, Financial Times, The New York Times, Reuters, Observer)

Our Take
 ASD’s Bret Schafer joined AICGS’ Transatlantic Cybersecurity Partnership and the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung (HSS) working group for a new brief entitled “Moving Beyond Cyber Wars: A Transatlantic Dialogue.” The group argues that Germany and the United States are “affected by the digital propaganda affecting the democratic process during elections,” and that “a strong cyber defense is critical for both nations,” and propose to – “improve information-sharing between the two countries on key cyber threats; increase understanding between the private sector and government entities on best practices for ensuring cybersecurity; and to move the legislative and policy conversation in both countries to ensure standards and infrastructure are in place to protect national and international security.”

Hamilton 68 Dashboard
Early in the week, pro-Kremlin accounts seized heavily on the passing of Senator John McCain to push narratives denigrating the Senator’s legacy and criticizing U.S. foreign policy. On August 27, Senator McCain was the second most-discussed topic on the dashboard and a YouTube video claiming that he was directly responsible for the self-proclaimed Islamic State was the most-shared URL by the pro-Kremlin accounts. In the past, pro-Kremlin accounts have targeted Senator McCain due to his strong foreign policy stances and antipathy toward the Kremlin. Later in the week, accounts tracked by the dashboard transitioned to focus on Syria, adopting narratives pushed by the Kremlin and its allied outlets that Syrian humanitarian groups and rebels were working with terrorists to fake chemical attacks against themselves. As part of this campaign, the Russian Embassy in South Africa shared a photo on August 27 claiming that foreign English-speaking specialists were preparing to stage a chemical attack. However, open source investigative outlet Bellingcat quickly revealed that the picture shared by the Embassy was actually taken from the movie set of a pro-Assad propaganda film. In the past, the Kremlin has spread similar disinformation to attempt to cover-up chemical attacks committed by the Russian-backed Assad regime against civilians.