We hope you enjoy this week’s extra-packed edition of Securing Democracy Dispatch which covers two weeks from December 22 to January 8.
Putin’s threat to democracy: Several excellent pieces from the past few weeks outline Putin’s tactics and objectives in undermining democracies. In Politico, Susan Glasser assesses that Putin seeks “wherever possible to reassert Russia’s position as the undisputed heavyweight of its neighborhood” through “some combination of political destabilization, bribery, propaganda, cyber-attacks and economic pressure.” Glasser cautions that this new “technological environment has created massive new vulnerabilities.” In The Washington Post, Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Jaffe depict a U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community that “never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions,” caught up in a “piecemeal response to the Russian disinformation threat.” John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security calls Russia’s activities “an existential threat to our national security.” And as Michael Weiss underscores in the Daily Beast, Putin supports extremist groups abroad and tries to turn “Russians worldwide into agents,” often recruiting organized crime which “proliferated with the demise of communism, and [whose] functionaries spread across Europe like spores.” Weiss discusses how the Kremlin operationalizes this network using numerous “European governmental nongovernmental organizations [or] ‘GONGOs’” which sow fears about “resurgent Nazism and Russian persecution,” creating fertile ground for Russia’s activities. Julia Ioffe in The Atlantic seeks to decipher Putin’s motives in these activities, finding that while “Putin and his country are aging, declining … the insecurities of decline present their own risks to America.” Asymmetric warfare “is classically Putin, and classically Russian: using daring aggression to mask weakness, to avenge deep resentments, and, at all costs, to survive.” (Politico, The Washington Post, Daily Beast, The Atlantic)
Guarding our elections: A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators responded to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections by introducing the Secure Elections Act, sponsored by Senators James Lankford and Amy Klobuchar, which seeks to upgrade voting infrastructure to address cyber vulnerabilities. The Belfer Center’s Michael Sulmeyer, writing in Lawfare, gives the bill a grade of “Pretty Good!” because it “promote(s) better information sharing,” “fund(s) improvements to state election systems and processes,” and “establish(es) a bug bounty program to uncover new vulnerabilities in election systems.” Citing areas that still need to be addressed, he advocates for the intelligence community and FBI to work with DHS to guard our elections; urges states to take advantage of federal assistance and political campaigns to better guard themselves against hackers; and recognizes that this bill is only an authorization, which will require appropriators to take up this cause in order to cover the costs of implementation. As the midterm elections swiftly approach, Politico reported that “states rushing to guard their 2018 elections against hackers may be on a waiting list for up to nine months for the Department of Homeland Security’s most exhaustive security screening,” despite the fact that DHS found “Russian hackers targeted election systems in at least 21 states in 2016. (The Hill, Lawfare Blog, Politico)
Shoring up our cyber defenses against Russian cyber-attacks: Konstantin Kozlovsky, the jailed Russian hacker who claims the Kremlin directed him to hack the Democratic National Committee in 2016, said that he left a digital fingerprint — his passport number and the number of one of his visas, to connect him to the hack. In support of Kozlovsky’s claims, McClatchy quotes Leo Taddeo, former head of cyber operations in the FBI’s New York office: “What the defendant (in Russia) is describing would not be inconsistent with past Russian intelligence operations.” As Alec Luhn writes in The Telegraph, Russia uses cyber-attacks against Ukraine as a training ground for those against the West, cautioning that the West has an even “greater ‘attack surface’ than in Ukraine” given the “higher level of automation in Western infrastructure.” Given this elevated threat, the BBC reports that private companies, such as IBM, “are setting up enormous cybersecurity test labs where multinationals can come in and experience what it’s like to go through a cyber-attack — without any risk.” (The Hill, McClatchy, The Telegraph, BBC)
U.K. parliamentarian threatens sanctions against Facebook and Twitter:Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport select committee in the U.K. parliament threatened to sanction Facebook and Twitter if they do not provide information he requested about Russian disinformation on their platforms by January 18. In a statement, Collins made a plea for transparency: “There has to be a way of scrutinizing the procedures that companies like Facebook put in place to help them identify known sources of disinformation, particularly when it’s politically motivated and coming from another country.” A report by Survation, commissioned by the Syria Campaign, finds that “three in four Britons believe tech companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, and MPs, are not doing enough to counter the organized online spread of falsehoods by state actors such as Russia.” The poll of more than 2,000 adults in the U.K. identifies Russia as the country most likely to launch disinformation campaigns. (The Guardian)
RT as an “information weapon” and responses to disinformation: DFR Labreported this week on Russia Today (RT), finding it is used as an “information weapon” which “repeatedly subordinate(s) journalistic standards to Russian government narratives, selectively reporting facts and comments to validate the Kremlin’s portrayal of events.” In response to this disinformation environment, French President Macron proposed a new law targeting disinformation during elections. Introducing the law, Macron stated “When fake news are spread, it will be possible to go to a judge … and if appropriate have content taken down, user accounts deleted and ultimately websites blocked.” In the United States, some state lawmakers are introducing laws that would compel “public school systems to do more to teach media literacy skills,” which they call “critical to democracy.” According to Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington, it is not a “partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating the information environment.” The European Union Commission is also joining the fight against disinformation. A high-level expert group led by Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans will develop “an EU-level strategy on how to tackle the spreading of fake news, to be presented in spring 2018.” (DFR Lab, Politico, Associated Press, Europa)
Disinformation narratives in Latvia: William Cook, writing in Spectator, analyzes Latvia’s fears about the effect of Russian disinformation on Latvia’s Russian minority. Citing Russia’s preoccupation with the arrival of NATO troops in the Baltic states, Cook finds “Russia has responded with malicious falsehoods, in an attempt to turn the locals against these foreign troops. Some of this fake news is crude: NATO troops have raped local girls (untrue). Some is more subtle: NATO troops are staying in luxury apartments at local expense (also untrue).” Per Cook, this disinformation is “softening up local resistance” and “breeding doubt and weakening Western resolve.” According to Martins Kaprans in CEPA, while he agrees that the Russians perpetuate master narratives, such as Latvia “systematically discriminates against its ethnic Russians; that fascism is on the rise; and that Latvia is a failed state,” he believes the “actual impact on the Latvian public opinion is an open question.” (Spectator, StopFake)
Russia and Belarus embrace cryptocurrencies: President Putin has “commissioned work on establishing a cryptocurrency,” such as a “cryptorouble,” that may allow Russia to evade sanctions. According to the Financial Times, “As with the internet, which the Kremlin has largely learnt to tame in recent years, the interest in cryptocurrencies reveals Russia’s desire to harness a concept originally designed to be free of government influence.” Cryptocurrencies allow users to remain anonymous and increasingly facilitate illicit financial activity. And as Bloomberg reported, Belarusian President Lukashenko “is making a bid for a shiny new image as the continent’s freewheeling cryptocurrency king.” Lukashenko signed a decree that offers “tax breaks and legal incentives for dealing in digital currencies” as he attempts “to turn Belarus into an international tech haven.” (Financial Times, Bloomberg)