Aug 12, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Kamala Harris brings record of fighting for election security to the Democratic ticket

Joseph Marks

She also has been a sponsor or co-sponsor of nearly every major piece of election security legislation since she joined the Senate in 2016. And she serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee where she’s had a front-row seat to the committee’s years-long investigation into Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaign to upend the 2016 contest and help Donald Trump’s election.
All of that could make Harris a formidable opponent against President Trump, who has routinely played down or outright denied Russia’s 2016 efforts.
During the first Democratic primary debate, Harris called Trump the greatest threat to national security and charged that “he takes the word of the Russian president over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to a threat to our democracy and our elections.”

Harris has also been on the front lines of the effort to ensure Americans can vote safely by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. 

That includes pressing the Postal Service to ensure service cuts don’t stop ballots from arriving in time to voters and election offices.
This week she called on Congress to “step in & save the Postal Service” on Twitter, arguing that “the Postmaster General, a Trump political ally and fundraiser, is destabilizing the Postal Service ahead of an election where millions seek to vote-by-mail.”
That’s another contrast with Trump, who has claimed without evidence that mail voting will lead to widespread fraud.
Her home state of California is also one of the hottest mail voting battlegrounds because of an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to automatically send mail ballots to all registered voters. The Republican National Committee is suing over that plan and Trump has continued to criticize it even as he has dramatically shifted his rhetoric to endorse mail voting in swing states Florida and Arizona.
People have fought and died for our right to vote, and that right must be protected when Americans vote during a pandemic,” Harris wrote in a May 23 tweet.

Harris was early to the election security fight. 

In 2017 she co-sponsored the Secure Elections Act, a bipartisan bill with Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). That bill got closer than any other legislation since 2016 to creating basic cybersecurity standards that state election officials must follow to protect themselves against hacking. It didn’t mandate any specific protections but would have created an independent panel to write them.
That bill fell apart amid fierce resistance from the White House but it helped pave the way for $380 million in election security money that Congress delivered to states in 2018. Congress has appropriated about $800 million more for elections since then for cybersecurity and protections against the pandemic.
Once it became clear that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was staunchly opposed to any bills with election security mandates, Harris put her name on more ambitious Democrats-only bills that would have required states to have paper records for all votes and conduct audits after elections to ensure votes were tabulated correctly.
Here she is on Twitter in 2019:
After the pandemic hit, Harris sponsored the VoteSafe Act, which would deliver $5 billion to help states expand voting by mail. It would also mandate that states allow all voters to cast ballots by mail without an excuse and offer 20 days of early voting.

Harris's profile is rising further as the battle over election interference returns to center stage. 

That fight took a back seat during the early months of the pandemic while lawmakers and election officials scrambled to adjust to a radically different sort of election than they’d planned for. But it has come back in force recently as intelligence agencies assess that Russia's already launching disinformation operations targeting the November contest and Democrats and Republicans are each charging the other side is misleading the public about the threat.
Biden has also sought to distinguish himself from Trump on the issue by pledging to punch back hard if he's elected against Russia or any other nation that interferes in the election. “I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice,” he said last month. “If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government.”
Trump, meanwhile, seems to be playing down the threat of Russian interference.
He chastised reporters this week for asking questions about Russian interference without also mentioning the possibility of Chinese and Iranian interference. Yet intelligence officials’ most recent assessment describes Russia as actively engaged in a wide range of disinformation efforts while Chinese efforts are largely focused on aggressive public rhetoric.
The assessment notes that “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’” while China “prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection.”
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said Sunday that Chinese hackers are targeting U.S. election infrastructure, including trying to hack into state election officials’ websites. That would seem to go beyond what was described in the intelligence assessment.

The keys

TikTok skirted Google privacy protections, leaving users unable to opt out of online tracking. 

The company collected personal information from millions of phones that could be used for advertising, Kevin Poulsen and Robert McMillan at the Wall Street Journal report. The information made it impossible for users to opt out of tracking, a violation of Google rules. The Journal's testing showed that TikTok ended the practice in November.
The potential breach in user trust could add to the heavy scrutiny TikTok is facing in Washington. Trump has signed an executive order targeting the Chinese-owned app in light of concerns that it could share U.S. user data with Beijing. The company is ”committed to protecting the privacy and safety of the TikTok community. Like our peers, we constantly update our app to keep up with evolving security challenges," it said in a statement to the Journal. Google said it was investigating the Journal's findings.
Meanwhile, a U.S. ban on TikTok that Trump is threatening within 45 days could include barring the app from app stores, Reuters's Karen Freifeld and Alexandra Alper report. That ban would likely be canceled if the app is sold to a U.S. company.
France's privacy watchdog is also investigating TikTok's data practices ahead of the company launching a headquarters in the European Union, where data privacy laws are much more stringent than in the United States, Bloomberg’s Helene Fouquet and Stephanie Bodoni report. .

Fake social media accounts linked to China have been posting videos bashing Trump's foreign policy.

The network of accounts has shared videos on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, researchers at the network analysis firm Graphika found, Craig Timberg and Shane Harris report. The videos, which are in English, target Trump's latest moves against China, including shutting down the Chinese consulate in Houston and threatening to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps.
The revelation from the analysis firm Graphika follows reports from U.S. intelligence officials that the Chinese government is seeking to discredit Trump ahead of the election. Graphika did not connect the network with the Chinese government but said it seemed aligned with Chinese interests.
The network used artificial intelligence to fake profile photos and often released videos soon after the Trump administration made policy shifts on China. But the videos were also riddled with odd translations and broken English, researchers found.
Social media companies have repeatedly taken action against the network by removing accounts for inauthentic behavior, previous research by Graphika shows. None of the videos flagged in Graphika's new report attracted large audiences.

Facebook removed 7 million posts spreading coronavirus misinformation between April and June.  

The company labeled 98 million other posts as misleading, Rachel Lerman reports. The removals highlight Facebook's more aggressive push against coronavirus misinformation compared to political misinformation.
Facebook has removed fewer posts that violate other rules, such as bans on nudity, because many moderators were sent home in March, the company said.
The company also said it will start allowing independent audits of its content moderation reports, something that civil rights advocates, states attorneys general and lawmakers have called for. 
“No company should grade its own homework, and the credibility of our systems should be earned, not assumed,” Facebook technical program manager Vishwanath Sarang wrote in a blog post.

Securing the ballot

Primaries in Georgia and Wisconsin saw fewer flubs than previous contests and virtually no wait times for voters. 

The relative smoothness of the elections could bode well for the general election, Amy Gardner and Dan Simmons report. But perils may still lay ahead including delays in counting an increase in absentee ballots and slow Postal Service delivery.
“Back in June, the covid-19 got to everything,” said Regina Waller, a spokeswoman for Fulton County, Ga. which suffered severe delays in its earlier primary. “We weren’t fully prepared. We lost sites, we lost workers because of it. This time we’re prepared.”

Hill happenings

Republicans want to help universities conducting coronavirus researchers fend off foreign hackers. 

Legislation from Reps. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) would require the Department of Commerce to create new cybersecurity standards for universities that could have their research targeted by hackers, The Hill's Maggie Miller reports.

Industry report

Spyware companies continue to advertise on Google even after it banned them.

TechCrunch found seven stalkerware companies still advertising in Google search after a ban on such companies went into effect Tuesday, Zack Whittaker reports. Stalkerware is monitoring software used to spy on users without their knowledge and has become a tool for domestic abusers.
Google did not say whether all the apps flagged by TechCrunch violated its policies, but it removed ads for one of them called WebWatcher.
Anti-virus companies and advocates who have crusaded against stalkerware say that Google's policy doesn't go far enough. For instance, it still allows apps designed for parents to monitor children. But many of those same apps also market their services to spy on spouses and other adults.
More industry news:

Chat room

Disinformation researchers are already wondering what adversaries are planning now that Harris has been nominated. Financial Times's Dave Lee and researcher Ben Decker:


  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) will webcast a discussion on the threat posed by Chinese espionage and how the Department of Justice has been responding today at 3 p.m.

Secure log off

More from the Post on the Harris pick:
And on voter registration efforts:

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