Dispatch (August 13th) from the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Alliance for Securing Democracy – Weekly Dispatch

U.S. officials and lawmakers take steps to secure elections, counter interference:  On August 7, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated that the military is taking steps to protect the 2018 midterm elections from foreign interference. Measures include protecting troops from foreign information campaigns, and working alongside DHS “in order to maintain the integrity of the election.” On August 9, The Washington Post reported: “The White House is drafting an executive order that would authorize President Trump to sanction foreigners who interfere in U.S. elections,” noting that the executive order “appears to be an effort to stave off aggressive legislation, including a bill introduced in Congress this month …” because the “most pain-inducing sanctions are discretionary.” Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee is slated to mark up the Secure Elections Act — which aims to facilitate state-federal information sharing on election security — on August 22. Members of the House Intelligence Committee, Republicans Tom Rooney (R-FL) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Democrats Jim Himes (D-CN) and Terri Sewell (D-AL), introduced a companion bill on August 10. (Military Times, Politico, The Hill, The Washington Post, U.S. Senate)

States and candidates grapple with election security ahead of midterms: In Minnesota, a state that was targeted by Russian hacks in 2016, $6.6 million in federal election security funding has become mired in partisan politics over an omnibus spending bill, while West Virginia’s plan to enable troops overseas to vote with their phones has drawn criticism from researchers, advocates, and academics over security concerns. Texas is grappling with funding issues as it seeks to upgrade its own voting machines, while Maryland Senators Ben Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) requested that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin direct the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) to scrutinize ByteGrid, the company with a contract to manage Maryland’s election infrastructure, which is owned by AltPoint Capital – a private equity firm headed by Kremlin insider Vladimir Potanin. Separately, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, Tabitha Isner, reported that there were thousands of attempts to access her campaign website last month with fake credentials; most of the attempts allegedly came from Russian IP addresses. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) also warned that Russian hackers have already gained access to some of Florida’s voter registration systems, although state administrators have denied any knowledge of those allegations. Commenting on the incident, ASD’s Laura Rosenberger explained in The New York Times: “Elections are a system based on trust. All you need to do is inject enough doubt in people’s minds.” (Politico, The Suwanee Democrat, KOMU, The Tampa Bay Times, WQOW, The Norwalk Reflector, NBC News, CNN, Wired, Austin American-Statesman, Committee to Investigate Russia, The Daily Beast, Associated Press, The New York Times)

New revelations revealed regarding the Internet Research Agency’s disinformation operations: GroupSense released a report tracing the use of allforusa@yahoo.com, a single abandoned email account that was named in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the IRA in February 2018, to mask and legitimize the IRA’s activities across social media platforms, including a website, and accounts on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. Separately, following the release of nearly three million IRA tweets by FiveThirtyEight, researchers have begun to report on trends in the IRA’s past Twitter activities. In findings reported by The Times of Israel, 60 percent of the tens of thousands of Israel-related tweets sought to improve the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump while criticizing former President Barack Obama. In addition, ThinkProgress reported that the IRA was also involved in spreading a conspiracy theory that the 2015 Jade Helm military exercise was a move by the Obama administration to impose martial law over a large swath of the United States. A BuzzFeed News analysis also showed that IRA accounts were extremely active during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, blaming Black Lives Matter and “antifa” for the violence surrounding the rally. The analysis showed that many of the IRA accounts went silent on August 18, 2017, just days after the rally, after an apparent crackdown by Twitter. Representative Tom Garrett (R-VA) said that he was briefed two months ago by the FBI, which confirmed that “Russian inter-meddling” had contributed to what happened in Charlottesville. (Axios, BreachRecon, Justice.gov, FiveThirtyEight, The Times of Israel, ThinkProgress, BuzzFeed News, CNN)

Steps taken to address the serious challenges posed by AI, deepfakes: According to CNET Senior Producer Dan Patterson in an interview with CBS News, artificial intelligence (AI) could soon influence political campaigns. Patterson said that malware embedded inside an app could use facial recognition AI technology, as well as AI to fend off malware scanners, to wipe computers and “demolish a local [political] campaign.” CNN Tech similarly reported on the potential use of AI technology to create “deepfakes,” a technology that can convincingly alter audio and video footage. The article highlighted the future challenges that deepfakes will pose, as experts warn that fake videos will likely be nearly impossible to identify in as little as 12 months. Academia and government are taking steps to address these threats. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed tools to detect deepfakes, using, for example, “physiological signals” such as head and eye movements, which are difficult to replicate. According to the leader of the project, Siwei Lyu, DARPA has developed an even more effective method, but is choosing to keep it secret for now – to maintain an advantage over video forgers. In academia, the Association for Computing Machinery published a proposal in May to make changes to the peer review process for publishing academic papers, hoping to assess the possible negative impacts of researchers’ work before it is published. As reported by Axios, the proposal led to an intense and prolonged debate about greater oversight. Opponents argue that it is impossible to guess if or how their work will be repurposed for negative ends. Proponents of the change argue that such arguments abdicate responsibility and call on their colleagues to better address the ethical consequences of their work. (CBS News, CNN Tech, MIT Technology Review, Association for Computing Machinery, Axios)

China’s expanding influence operations take the spotlight: According to Axios, the Chinese government maintains the ability to pursue an online political disinformation campaign directed at foreign elections, though it has not yet chosen to do so. Instead, Beijing “favors long-term thinking over Russia’s scorched-earth foreign policy,” and has alternatively – “…pursued other equally potent strategies for meddling in the political affairs of other countries.” As assessed by ASD Director Laura Rosenberger, “Russia and China have different long-term strategic interests, and they have different geopolitical positions … Putin… is largely acting out of weakness. Therefore, his strategy goes towards one that is a little bit more inclined towards chaos and destruction and weakening others without really caring about what is put in its place. Whereas China’s strategy, they’re playing a much longer game.” Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that “an emboldened, globally ambitious China is using money, business deals and other incentives to extend its power abroad,” pointing to China’s growing influence in the Czech Republic. Authors David Barboza, Marc Santora, and Alexandra Stevenson caution that “tighter ties to China mean greater susceptibility to an opaque political system where decisions are made behind the scenes.” (Axios, The New York Times)