Russian Election Disinformation Playbook: Tehran Edition

We already know that the Russians and Chinese are up to no good regarding our elections, and now Iran is in on the act. That’s the word from Wired magazine, which reports that it’s been a successful change in strategy from the earlier approach taken by Iran.

Instead of focusing on domestic Iranian politics, the new network focused on U.S. and British politics. It was a more successful tactic, if you judge success by followers. The old network had about 200,000; the new one had more than 1 million. Facebook shut down 82 associated accounts from the new network in October.

The article’s findings are in line with a joint U.S. government statement from the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security from Oct. 19 laying out exactly what’s going on regarding foreign interference in the midterms.

The statement fingers Russia, China and Iran as culprits, explaining their tactics and pointing out that as of that date, there was no “evidence of a compromise or disruption of infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections.” There were a few attempts to access the networks of state and local governments, which “often include online voter registration databases,” but they were all thwarted.

It’s worth your time to read it because it’s straight from the source, and there’s no better way to judge a situation for yourself than to review primary sources. That’s because everything is open to interpretation and news is no different.

While our mission at CAFI is to educate the public about foreign interference with our democracy, we have a sideline in cutting through click-bait and getting to the facts. For the second time this month, we’ve spotted a story that’s taking the long road to the actual news.

This piece entitled “Google says it’s seeing very little hacking against the US midterms — but there’s a catch” backs into the news.

Allow us to translate: Russian disinformation and propaganda operations are in full swing, but Google – like the government – hasn’t seen any evidence of actual hacking of election systems yet, according to Google’s director of threat analysis, Shane Huntley.

The article quotes Huntley’s observation about the success of our enemies, made during a speech on Oct. 22. It takes on poignance in light of the recent domestic attacks:

Speculating on why they’re seeing fewer direct hacking attempts than 2016, Huntley said: “If the goal at that time was to create a world where there was less faith in the democratic institutions, that we were a divided country, that there was hyper-partisanism, and it was like driving a wedge between the different sides of the democracy, one might say there’s not a lot of hacking that needs to happen at this current point to actually engender that—because we’re already here.”



On the Recent U.S. Domestic Attacks

We at CAFI want to express our sympathies to the victims of the recent trio of domestic terror attacks in the U.S.

While we are focused chiefly on the consequences and damage from foreign influence and sabotage, these events shows that homegrown activists with perverted views are a real and present danger in the U.S. These are precisely the kind of divisions our enemies are trying to open up on social media to turn us against each other.

There are consequences in the real world when hatred, anger, racism, anti-Semitism and any other vitriol against “the other” are unchallenged and even supported in the online arena. We condemn the acts of violence and the ignorance and hate behind them, and pledge to do everything we can to call out inflammatory actions and digital provocations when we see them.

Russian Midterm Election Hacking: U.S. Takes the Gloves Off

The U.S. government is finally bringing its full force to bear against Russia’s heretofore largely unchecked campaign to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.

In the past week, the government has fired off three public broadsides at the Russian government, most notably with the Justice Department’s indictment against Russian woman working for a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutors allege Elena Khusyaynova managed a $35 million budget to fund social media trolling operations as part of a years-long campaign to sow discord among Americans. Same as the 13 trolls charged by the Robert Mueller investigation, the operations Khusyaynova oversaw as chief accountant worked both sides of the political aisle as they tried to ramp up distrust of the political system.

The trolls picked hot-button issues like race relations, guns, immigration, women and tried to whip up passions on either side. It’s the same M.O. they use to create resistance against pipeline projects from North Dakota to Florida.

The charge against her, appropriately, is conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Then, the U.S. Cyber Command let it be known that it is identifying and tracking individual Russian trolls with an overseas cyber-operation billed as the first of its kind. What’s interesting is that the government made what should be a covert operation overt. There’s a reason – they want the public and the Russians to know.

The underlying reasons are different, though. For the American public, it’s a way to demonstrate that the government is acting and not sitting back. For the Russians, it’s an attempt at deterrence – warning that there are real-world risks for their online actions against the U.S. And it’s a good start.

Finally, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton fired a shot across the Kremlin’s bow from inside Moscow. During a trip to meet with Russian counterparts, he told a Moscow radio station that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election had backfired by creating distrust of Russia.

Bolton essentially called it a classic case of blowback – when covert operations go bad, they cause the opposite of the intended effect and “blow back” on the perpetrator. In his typically blunt manner, he said: “Don’t mess with U.S. elections.

The sum of all these developments is that it’s clear Russia has not abandoned its plans to interfere with our body politic, the same as it is doing around the world.

So much for the story that there was no evidence of Russian trolling in the midterm elections. We said it back then – a thief changes nothing but tactics.

Facebook bans Russian facial recognition firm

“We know everything about everybody.”

That’s the saying emblazoned at the top of the Russian website SocialDataHub, a Kremlin-linked company banned from Facebook last week for improperly harvesting user data.

SocialDataHub and its sister company Fubutech build facial recognition software and other applications for the Russian government. These are not fly-by-night operations; the companies have been around for at least four years and provide banks and insurance companies with ratings of customers based on their social media profiles.

If that isn’t creepy enough, Fubutech has amassed a database of Russian citizens and their photographs from scraped data that it provides to the Russian government. Making matters worse, the company denies awareness of how the information is being used by Vladimir Putin’s government, no friend to human rights.

“We don’t know exactly what they do with it,” Fubutech’s CEO Artur Khachuyan told the New York Times.

In all, Facebook quietly took down 66 accounts, pages and apps tied to companies doing facial recognition for the Russian government last week.

While we’re unaware of this software being deployed against U.S. citizens, the Kremlin’s interest in amassing such information and using it to monitor, surveil, or spy on anyone in its reach is chilling. Added to Russia’s sophisticated Internet troll operation, their cyberhacking of U.S. electric utilities and state election systems, and even more aggressive actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and other European nations, it further paints Putin’s regime as a ruthless enemy of freedom.

“We know everything about everybody” — it’s the old Communist-era joke about the Party watching you, except without the joke.

Russia & Hacking the Midterms: What’s really going on?

An article from The Daily Beast purports that there are no signs yet of Russian hacking or interference  in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections – which is good news, if it’s true.

Like all news, let’s take it with a grain of salt. The thrust of the article’s argument is that Russia did such a good job messing with 2016’s polls that it doesn’t have to lift a finger now.

That’s a comforting thought but not one suffused with true understanding of how state intelligence actors operate. Russia’s work advancing its interests is never done, same as it is with the United States or any other nation-state.

Influence operations are marathons and not sprints, and their means and methods vary widely, as this handy but incomplete list of Russian spying operations around the world can attest.

So even if Russia’s operations around the 2016 election achieved their goals, it’s not like Moscow said “OK, we’re good now.” More than likely, they’re shifting to other modes of operation that aren’t as well-known since surprise and stealth are the fundamental elements of covert action.

After all, a thief whose best hauls came from breaking in through unlocked windows doesn’t stop once the people in the neighborhood start locking them. He just breaks the glass instead.

Be listening for that sound.

Read the full story here