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Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: The next big disinformation fight is coming – over coronavirus vaccines

Joseph Marks

9-11 minutes - Source: The Washington Post

They include unfounded claims the vaccines aren’t sufficiently tested, that they’ll produce damaging side effects and that they’re being secretly funded by billionaires such as George Soros and Bill Gates. 

The disinformation war is about to shift from targeting voters to targeting vaccines and the stakes will be lives,” Peter Singer, a fellow at the New America think tank who has written extensively about information warfare, told me.

The phony claims are being spread largely by domestic actors, including critics of traditional vaccines, Renée DiResta, a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory who investigates the online spread of disinformation, told me.

“Story lines that were laid down at the beginning of the summer are being reconstituted to specifically tie them to Moderna and Pfizer as their vaccines show positive results,” she said. 

But such disinformation could be amplified by Russia and other U.S. adversaries

“The longer we struggle with covid, the less trust our allies have in us, the more chaos they can sow. That’s pain they can inflict on us,” Clint Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who tracks Russian influence operations, told me.

The groups knocking back these phony claims will be doing so in an environment that's already toxic because of the election and President Trump's refusal to concede. 

Trump and congressional Republicans have savaged social media companies for fact checking and labeling the president’s unfounded claims about election fraud — both before and after the voting concluded. That has burned through much of the good will those companies might have hoped for in the vaccine disinformation fight.

Trump and his allies have also attacked top federal officials in charge of combating disinformation for disputing the president’s baseless claims of election fraud — including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Chris Krebs, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 

“[Trump] undermines government efforts by going out and spreading conspiracies, which makes it very difficult for those agencies to be trusted,” Watts said. “If you had unity at home in terms of the truth, you could repel this stuff from abroad much easier.” 

CISA may be especially hobbled in its efforts to combat vaccine disinformation.

The agency drew Trump’s ire for running a rumor control Web page that knocked back phony election claims — including some made by the president himself. 

The White House was mulling firing Krebs as recently as this weekend for allegedly refusing to edit or remove some of the fact checks, though Krebs was still employed on Monday. 

Krebs regularly touted the rumor control page to reporters and said he’d like to create a similar page geared to coronavirus disinformation. Those plans may be on hold now, with Krebs’s future at the agency in question — removing a key trusted source to vet such information. 

CISA representatives did not respond yesterday to my queries about vaccine rumor control. 

We need authority figures and people who enjoy public trust to step in and create content around this just to make sure they don’t cede the ground to people with bad intentions,” DiResta said.

On the plus side, Trump is unlikely to amplify disinformation that undermines confidence in the vaccines as he did about the election. 

In fact, the president has mostly been eager to take credit for the vaccines being developed on his watch. 

That could dull any inclination by his supporters to embrace or pass along phony claims

“One out of three Americans still sees him as a trusted source of information and maybe one out of four Americans believes everything he says. So, if he’s right on this that’s better,” Watts told me.

Some analysts fear, however, Trump could shift course and start sowing unfounded doubts about vaccines after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“My fear is that he starts throwing false claims and creating uncertainty about the vaccine and its side effects to attract attention, to stay in the news and to disrupt the Biden administration as much as he can,” Singer said. 

The keys

Georgia's secretary of state says fellow Republicans are pressuring him to reject legal ballots.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was among those who asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) whether he had the power to reduce the number of votes counted, including by tossing all mail ballots in counties with higher rates of non-matching signatures, Amy Gardner reports

Graham denied the allegations. He said he merely contacted Raffensperger to understand how the state’s signature-matching requirements work. “If he feels threatened by that conversation, he’s got a problem,” Graham said. “I actually thought it was a good conversation.”

The same day, a Trump supporter filed a lawsuit over Georgia's signature-matching law. Raffensperger said he would defend the state against the lawsuit.

Georgia is conducting a hand audit of about 5 million ballots cast in the state. Raffensperger has drawn the ire of Republicans by refusing to endorse Trump's unfounded claims of fraud in a state Biden appears to have narrowly won.

Raffensperger attacked his critics in a Facebook thread that righted incorrect claims about the state's election process. He called Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who's leading Trump's efforts to dispute results there, “a liar” and said he would “fight any and all federal overreach to takeover Georgia's elections.”

He also expressed concerns that conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines spread by Trump and his allies could create problems for the state's runoff elections in January for its two Senate seats, which could decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the chamber. 

“I don’t think it’s helpful when you create doubt in the election process,” Raffensperger told Amy. “People might throw up their arms and say, ‘Why vote?’ ”

In a separate development yesterday, dozens of leading specialists in election security signed a letter stating they saw no credible evidence of computer fraud in the 2020 election. They also called on policymakers to endorse measures such as paper ballots and post-election audits to improve voter confidence. 

More from Politico's Eric Geller:

House Democrats will hold leadership elections virtually for the first time. 

The members will use an app on government-issued iPhones to vote, Paulina Firozi and Paul Kane report. Republicans will still hold their leadership vote in person. 

The move highlights a stark partisan divide over the use of virtual voting during the pandemic

Last week House Democrats released a report expressing confidence members could vote remotely using secure technology. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) dismissed the proposed operation as “unproved, unsecure and unconstitutional.”

Election security experts have warned against voting on mobile devices in traditional elections with secret ballots, but raised far fewer concerns in instances where votes are public and voters can verify they’re correct. 

The military is buying location data of unsuspecting app users.

The military has been scooping up anonymized location data from popular apps including a Muslim prayer app with 98 million downloads, a Muslim dating site and a weather app, Joseph Cox at Motherboard reports

The findings come as lawmakers are increasingly scrutinizing how the U.S. government, including DHS and the IRS, are using commercial location data with little or no oversight.

The military purchased the data through two middlemen, a contractor named Babel Street and the data broker X-Mode, which obtained it from the apps themselves. 

A military representative said that the data was used for overseas operations and that it strictly adheres to “established procedures and policies for protecting the privacy, civil liberties, constitutional and legal rights of American citizens.”

Although location data purchased by the military is anonymized, a former Babel street employee says the company was capable of deanonymizing the data. Other Babel Street clients have included government contractors.

X-Mode told Motherboard it licenses data to contractors for “counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and predicting future COVID-19 hotspots.” Several apps using X-Mode had no idea their users' data was being passed along to the military. 

On the move

Twitter named Peiter Zatko, a famous hacker widely known by his handle Mudge, as its new head of security, Reuters reported. Zatko most recently worked at Stripe and has experience working with the Pentagon.

More cybersecurity news:


CISA took a Twitter victory lap on the two-year anniversary of when the agency was formally created. (Most of CISA’s functions have been around for years, but under the far clunkier title of National Protection and Programs Directorate). Here are a few highlights:


  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC today and tomorrow starting at 11 a.m.
  • USTelecom and Inside Cybersecurity will host a webinar on information technology priorities in the coming year today at 2 p.m.
  • MIT Technology Review's CyberSecure conference will take place December 2 and 3.

Secure log off

We hope the National Zoo practices good election security! 


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