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Oct 27, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Courts rule election money from Facebook founder will stay despite conservative attempts to reverse it


Joseph Marks


But federal judges have declined to halt the funding to counties in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa and South Carolina, saying they see no partisan tilt in the grants, which were also given to many rural and Republican counties. CTCL delivered the grants to more than 2,300 election departments using a formula that links funding to the district’s voting population. 

“The truth is that plaintiffs — like all residents of the counties — stand to benefit from the additional resources for safe and efficient voting provided by CTCL grants,” Judge Amos L. Mazzant III noted in denying an injunction on grants to counties that include the cities of Houston and Dallas. 

The suits are drawing attention to a flood of funding from rich donors this year aimed at helping counties fund basic election administration tasks that they can’t afford themselves. In addition to Zuckerberg, actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger (R) is offering grants to nearly 6,000 counties aimed at keeping polling places open in southern states. 

Many election pros applaud the donations even as they worry that private funding could eventually taint the election process.

Florida State University law professor Michael T. Morley called the grants a reasonable but “extraordinary response to the extraordinary circumstances” of running an election during a pandemic. But he warned such fixes should not become the norm.

“You don’t want a presidential election brought to you by Pepsi,” he said. “At the end of the day, these are quintessentially public functions, and if the government is funding anything it ought to be elections.” 

Such grants have played a minimal role in past elections. But they've surged this year because of a combination of inadequate state and federal funding, the outsize challenges of the pandemic and intense partisan interest by supporters of President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. 

“From a legal perspective, it’s hard to see what law was violated here, but from a public policy perspective, this probably isn’t the way we want to fund election administration,” Duke University law professor Guy-Uriel Charles told me.  

He compared the grants to other instances in which donors have helped fund police departments and raised thorny questions about who those departments are beholden to. 

“The real fix is adequate funding of elections and other public services,” Charles said. 

Zuckerberg and Chan announced plans to fund election administration through private donations in March, soon after Democrats sought $4 billion for elections in a coronavirus stimulus bill but were only able to deliver $400 million. They effectively matched the number Congress provided. Since then, Democratic efforts to provide more election money have all failed. 

The move comes as Facebook continues to face criticism for failing to spot Russian disinformation campaigns on its platform in 2016, among a host of other legal and political challenges. 

The suits have not been dismissed outright in most states, and the Thomas More Society is pledging to pursue them even after Election Day. 

“Zuckerberg is putting as much money into the election as the federal government and that should be concerning to everybody,” Phill Kline, director of the Thomas More Society’s Amistad Project and a  law professor at Liberty University, told me. 

In future elections, conservative groups could similarly boost election funding in counties that lean Republican, Kline warned, setting off a partisan arms race among rich donors. Donors could also insist that funding be used for their priorities rather than where election officials think it would best be spent. 

“If this isn’t stopped, you’re going to have elections where each county election board is paid by someone in the private sector, and that clearly undermines the integrity of the election,” he said.

Even some election officials who benefited from the CTCL grants argued they shouldn't be a long-term fix

“Of course, the amazing philanthropy that we saw late in the cycle this year has made it possible to run this election well. It shouldn't come to that,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D) said during an Oct. 20 press call as reported by Pew Stateline

Boockvar’s office is a plaintiff in one of the Thomas More Society lawsuits challenging grants to Pennsylvania counties. Her office declined my interview request saying it doesn’t discuss ongoing litigation. 

The Center for Tech and Civic Life, meanwhile, dismissed the lawsuits as “frivolous.” 

“As election officials work to serve voters in these final weeks of the 2020 election, their most valuable asset is time,” the center said in a statement. “Judges in multiple states have rejected temporary restraining orders, recognizing that these lawsuits are frivolous, peddle misinformation and waste election officials’ time at the voter’s expense.”

Zuckerberg also shot back in a Facebook post soon after the first lawsuits were filed on Oct. 13, saying his only goal with the grants was to ensure elections run smoothly during the pandemic. 

“These funds will serve communities throughout the country — urban, rural and suburban — and are being allocated by nonpartisan organizations,” he wrote. 

The keys

Twitter labeled another Trump tweet that makes “misleading claims” about mail voting.  

The president claimed in a tweet yesterday that there are “big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA, a claim that isn't backed by facts, Felicia Sonmez and Elise Viebeck report

Must have final total on November 3rd, he wrote, adding fuel to concerns that there will be unrest if it takes days or weeks to determine a winner, as experts say might happen. 

Twitter and Facebook, meanwhile, have stepped up measures to guard against their platforms being used to stoke potential Election Day confusion and violence.

Twitter launched new alerts cautioning users to be wary of misinformation leading up to the election. 

The notifications include warnings about misleading information about voting by mail, Rachel Lerman reports

Facebook is also gearing up to potentially deploy tools to stop viral content and suppress a wider range of inflammatory posts should violence or civil unrest result from the election, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman at the Wall Street Journal report. Both companies have imposed restrictions on posts that declare an election winner before verified sources do.

The U.S. intelligence chief won’t brief Florida lawmakers on Iran’s election disinformation campaign.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence cited lack of bandwidth in denying the request from Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D) and Michael Waltz (R), Ana Ceballos at the Miami Herald reports.  

The pair sought more information about a recent email campaign sent to intimidate voters, which U.S. intelligence has attributed to Iran. The emails, which spoofed the far-right group the Proud Boys group, reached hundreds of Democratic voters in Florida and threatened them if they didn’t vote for President Trump. 

Florida lawmakers previously slammed the FBI for waiting more than two years to reveal that Russian hackers had penetrated some state voter files before 2016. The FBI later amended its procedures on notifying state officials about election interference but not congressional delegations.  

A hacker is blackmailing patients of a Finnish psychotherapy practice after a data breach. 

The threats appear to be based on personal records and therapy notes stolen in an attack against psychotherapy provider Vastaamo, Jari Tanner at the Associated Press reports

Finnish law enforcement says tens of thousands of patients may have been affected, making it potentially one of the biggest cases of patient blackmail using stolen records. The hacker appears to have stolen the records in two separate attacks starting in 2018.

The records of at least 300 patients have been shared on the dark web. Vastaamo is working with the Finnish police and is urging patients to contact the police. 

Securing the ballot

The Supreme Court rejected a request to extend the deadline for accepting mail-in ballots in Wisconsin.  

The 5-to-3 decision fuels concerns that potentially tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters may not be able to vote by mail because of late ballot delivery, Robert Barnes reports.  

A conservative majority on the high court argued that federal courts had overstepped in mandating election procedures that should be left to local officials. A district judge originally sided with Democrats and civil rights groups and extended the deadline for counties to receive mail ballots for six days after the election, but the Republican National Committee and the Wisconsin Republican Party appealed the decision.

DHS is leading an effort to get veterans to help combat disinformation campaigns targeted at service members.

The joint campaign with the nonprofit advocacy group Vietnam Veterans of America urges veterans to evaluate online content before sharing it, Alex Horton reports

Military members have been targeted by foreign interference campaigns in the past, a 2019 report from Vietnam Veterans of America found. The reports author criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for not acting on the report at the time and passing the responsibility to DHS. 

“This campaign is unfortunately launching far too late to have a real effect on 2020,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, VVA’s former chief investigator. “But this campaign is important for every day beyond the election. It’s an education program that I hope is not just a flash in the pan.” 

More election security news:

National security watch

A new report calls for the White House to create a directorate in charge of safeguarding emerging technologies.

The report from the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund lays out steps U.S. officials need to take to compete with China in the race for emerging technologies.

The report cites significant concerns with growing Chinese espionage and the countrys advantage in setting international standards that will shape the security of emerging technologies. 

It suggests that the directorate work with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to appoint a “Future Internet Director.” The office would work with other agencies, as well as the private sector, to facilitate 5G deployment and to help set security guidelines for emerging Internet technologies.

Daybook

  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday to examine Section 230 immunity at 10 a.m.
  • The USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative will host a final workshop on the lessons from the workshops it has hosted in 50 states leading up to the election on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on Nov. 17-18, starting at 11 a.m.

Secure log off

Between the 4G and water, seems like the moon makes for the perfect coronavirus vacation destination.

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