Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Securing Democracy Dispatch – 4 December 2017

News and Commentary

Russia may build its own Internet: RT reported that the Russian government will build an “independent Internet” to connect the BRICS countries — Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, in order to guard against “global Internet malfunctions.” According to Defense One, while “Russians cited national security concerns … the real reason may have more to do with Moscow’s own plans for offensive cyber operations … deterrence by denial.” Hacks could be both more difficult to attribute and to retaliate against as an independent Internet could connect “key nation-state trading partners” with less risk that retaliation would harm their own states. Discussing the initiative, “Members of Russia’s security council … claimed that ‘the increased capabilities of western nations to conduct offensive operations in the informational space as well as the increased readiness to exercise these capabilities pose a serious threat to Russia’s security.’” A new Internet would “operate outside the control of international organizations,” making it more difficult to protect Internet users and vulnerable populations from being monitored by authoritarian regimes. (RT, Defense One, telesur, Daily Mail)

Russian oligarchs, sanctions, and real estate transactions: Reuters reported this week that Russian oligarchs “are on edge” as they wait to see who will be included on the list of potential sanctions targets the Trump administration is drafting as mandated by the Russia sanctions legislation enacted last summer. “While most of the business elite remains loyal to Putin, the prospect of personal sanctions — which can prevent travel abroad or access to foreign bank accounts and freeze foreign assets — has prompted some to steer clear,” according to unnamed sources quoted by Reuters. Compiling the report has led to “an unprecedented activity of U.S. financial intelligence in Europe and a number of other countries requesting data on Russians,” according to Crime Russia. And as The Washington Post uncovered this week, one of DC’s swankiest mansions on Embassy Row is secretly owned by Putin associate Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who has been “generally barred from visiting the United States because the U.S. government has refused to extend him visas” due to “suspicions that he had been involved in organized crime.” Deripaska purchased the mansion through a company incorporated in Delaware using loopholes that allowed him to hide his identity. According to Charles Davidson, executive director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute, “the mansion is a striking example of how the world’s uber-wealthy can quietly invest in high-end real estate, obscuring their identities through front companies.” (Reuters, Crime Russia, The Washington Post)

Russian connections to Europe’s populist politics: A new report by George Washington University researcher Javier Lesaca finds that of the five million social media postings about the Catalonia crisis during the week of September 29 to October 5, only 3 percent came from “real profiles outside the Russian and Venezuelan cybernetworks.” Further, “32 percent of the messages investigated came from Venezuela — accounts linked to the Chavista regime of Nicolás Maduro. 30 percent were born from anonymous accounts exclusively dedicated to contents of the Russian state media RT and Sputnik; 25 percent came from bots; and 10 percent from the official accounts of the two Russian media mentioned.” As researchers continue to uncover the extent of Russia’s support for Catalonian separatists, Facebook and Twitter agreed this week to “hand over some information relating to the reach of Russian-backed posts during the Brexit referendum,” following calls by British MPs investigating Russia’s connections to the Leave campaign. And the U.K.’s Electoral Commission wrote to Google, indicating that it will also be part of the Commission’s Brexit-Russia probe. Across the Channel, the Bank of France endorsed the closure of the bank accounts of Marine Le Pen and her far-right party Front National. In a statement released by the Bank, “The closure of the National Front’s accounts by the banks does not appear to reflect wrongdoing vis-à-vis their regulatory obligations, and leaves no reason to believe they acted with discrimination.” According to France 24, “Trouble borrowing money is nothing new for Le Pen. In 2014 when French banks stopped lending to her, she turned to Russia.” (The Daily Beast, The Guardian, Business Insider, France 24)

China extends its influence in Europe and the United States: China held its sixth Summit of Heads of Government of Central and Eastern European countries and China where it announced that it would set up a China-CEEC interbank associationand invest $3 billion in infrastructure projects throughout the region. According to Jonathan Hillman, director of the CSIS Reconnecting Asia Project, China’s interests in the region are “a bridge into the EU,” which has European diplomats fearful that the ties “could be exploited by Beijing to undermine union rules and take advantage of growing east-west tensions in the pact itself.” China’s efforts to influence discourse in the United States may be growing as well, as Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported in Foreign Policy that the recently endowed professorship in the China Studies department at Johns Hopkins will be funded “in part from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) … a registered foreign agent bankrolled by a high-ranking Chinese government official with close ties to a sprawling Chinese Communist Party apparatus that handles influence operations abroad, known as the ‘united front.’” In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, cautions, “The Chinese Communist Party is extending its surveillance of critics abroad, reaching into Western academic communities and silencing visiting Chinese students. Through a campaign of fear and intimidation, Beijing is hindering free speech in the United States and in other Western countries.” This follows a pattern of Beijing’s activities that The New York Times found is already impacting academic freedom in Australia. And according to Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security, “China is poised to be a major player” in “the world’s top AI companies,” chipping away at America’s comparative technological advantage. (Reuters, Financial Times, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Center for a New American Security)

Russian cyber-attacks and the outlook for 2018: Russia’s cyber hacking reaches Canada as Federal prosecutors in San Francisco found that starting in 2014, “a team of hackers working for the Russian Federal Security Service … illegally accessed more than 30 million Yahoo accounts and several Gmail accounts, and stole data on more than 500 million Yahoo users.” A Canadian citizen, Karim Baratov, sold his hacking services to Russian agents and pleaded guilty Tuesday. His accomplices remain at large in Russia. According to Paul Abbate, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch, “This case is a prime example of the hybrid cyber threat we’re facing, in which nation states work with criminal hackers to carry out malicious activities.” As Gil Press writes in Forbes, cybersecurity attacks will continue apace in 2018, and include new tools such as Artificial Intelligence. Forbes quotes James Scott, senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology: “Sophisticated adversaries will leverage the granular metadata stolen from breaches like Equifax, OPM, and Anthem, in precision targeted attacks that rely on demographic and psychographic Big Data algorithms powered by machine-learning and artificial intelligence” in order to “propagate the false narratives used to weaponize malicious fake news, inflate partisan debates, and undermine democratic institutions.” (LA Times, Forbes)

Dashboards Hamilton 68 and Artikel 38

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Hamilton 68 dashboard: For the second week in a row, Europe was in the crosshairs of Kremlin-influenced accounts as they attempted to paint a picture of a continent in turmoil. 12 percent of stories this week focused on the EU (more than Syria and Ukraine combined), with the dominant narrative being the scourge of migrant crimes and the Islamization of the EU. The one exception to this portrayal was Hungary, whose leader, Viktor Orban, is often fetishized by pro-Kremlin accounts as an anti-globalist, Christian crusader. Popular URLs shared by the network focused not only on the benefits of Hungary’s migration policy, but also on an alleged plot by the U.S. State Department to “meddle” in Hungary’s democracy by funding independent media in the country (a common practice throughout the region). This is the first week since the launch of the dashboard that Europe has been a more prominent topic than Syria, a sign, perhaps, of a concerted effort to fray transatlantic bonds.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Artikel 38 dashboard: With Christmas approaching, pro-Kremlin German language accounts revived memories of the Christmas market attack last year that killed 12 people in Berlin. The network blamed Merkel’s refugee policy for the need to take massive safety precautions at markets across Germany this year. Moreover, a popular article shared by monitored accounts pushed a theory that mainstream political parties were obstructing the investigation into last year’s attack in order to protect their migration agenda. Additional attacks were launched against pro-migrant mayors across the country who were viewed as being complicit in the national government’s “disastrous policies.”

Quotes of the Week

“I think the real clash of civilizations that the world faces right now is quite a different one. It is a clash between countries and societies that reflect the rule of law and honor civil and property rights, as opposed to what Saint Augustine described as great bands of robbers. What is government without justice but great bands of robbers? And in the part of this Earth that is beyond that rule of law regime of civil rights and property rights runs a very different regime of kleptocracy, of criminality, of authoritarian abuse, and there I think is where we find the true clash between civilizations.”

– Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-RI), The United States of Anonymity: How America Became a Financial Secrecy Haven, Hudson Institute, November 30, 2017

“Russia continues aggressive behavior toward other regional neighbors by interfering in election processes and promoting non-democratic ideals. We, together with our friends in Europe, recognize the active threat of a recently resurgent Russia.”

– Rex W. Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, The Wilson Center, Washington, DC, November 28, 2017

Worst of the Week

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

An Italian documentary that aired last week (and was widely rebroadcast in Russia) claimed to present new “evidence” that protestors at the Maidan were murdered by Georgian snipers under orders from former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The “false flag” theory has long been pushed by the Kremlin; however, this is at least the third different version to be floated — following claims that the shootings were orchestrated by the Ukrainian far right and/or Western-backed opposition groups. Inconsistencies in the report have already been noted by StopFake and Myth Detector, among others. The Italian channel that produced the documentary is owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Burlesconi, a close friend and ally of Vladimir Putin. (EV vs. Disinfo)

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