Cybersecurity

Russia election meddling fears expand to other countries

Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election may be motivating other foreign adversaries to use social media to try to disrupt U.S. elections going forward, security experts warn.

Experts point to Facebook's announcement this week that it shuttered hundreds of pages tied to foreign governments, with many of the pages - as well as accounts shut down on Twitter and Google - linked to the government of Iran.

The development boosted the Trump administration's claim that other foreign groups, not just Russians, are intent to sow discord while putting a fresh spotlight on the need to ward against election meddling coming from any country.

"Look no further than the amazing return of investment yielded by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in the 2016 election," said Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division.

"When you see that kind of impact and the U.S. government's ... reticence to fire like weapons back, it is to me not at all surprising that we now have Iran involved in these misadventures," added Hosko, who is now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

Security firm FireEye, which first flagged the suspicious accounts to Facebook, determined that certain accounts that had been sharing links to stories from a news site were fake. Since then, Google has also started to remove dozens of other Iran-linked accounts from YouTube and other sites.

Lee Foster, the manager of FireEye's information operations intelligence analysis team, said that the accounts and pages appeared to be shaping a message favorable to Iran's national interests.

Foster, whose team helped uncover the initial Facebook groups from Iran, called the report revealing the Iranian influence campaign "significant because it demonstrates that there are actors other than Russia engaging in this type of activity."

Experts voicing concerns that other countries are taking pages out of Russia's playbook say that social media platforms and U.S. agencies need to step up their efforts to quickly detect and deter any foreign influence campaigns.

High-ranking Trump administration officials have recently warned of other countries attempting to meddle in U.S. elections, including Tehran - claims that are bolstered by revelations of the fake accounts tied to Iran.

In addition to Russia, White House national security adviser John Bolton earlier this month named Iran, China and North Korea as countries of "sufficient national security concern" to U.S. elections, but declined to disclose proof of such activity.

And Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also said last week that the four nations have "demonstrated a willingness to attack the United States in a variety of areas through cyber means."

Foster, the manager from FireEye, said that a country's decision to launch such a campaign is primarily based on a cost-benefit analysis of potential risks, warning that the risks of targeting the U.S. may seem minimal to the foreign governments.

"Right now it does appear they see the risk as something worthwhile, and the cost as nonprohibitive versus the potential benefit," Foster said, adding that the attacks often aren't based on politics or capability.

Experts say that while Iran has attempted to spread misinformation in the past, the latest campaign is notable because of its apparent timing after Russian attempts to influence the 2016 elections.

Larry Pfeiffer, who served as the chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, compared the current state of cyberspace to the "insanity" of the Wild West: When someone pulls off a successful heist, he said, others catch wind of it.

"When someone figured out it was easy to rob banks, suddenly [there were] a lot of bank robbers out there," Pfeiffer, who now works at The Chertoff Group, told The Hill.

While the U.S. has repeatedly hit Russia with sanctions following its sophisticated cyber campaign during the 2016 election, experts say the latest attacks indicate the current financial penalties may not be doing enough to deter Moscow's aggression.

President Trump also faced widespread criticism last month after he refused to criticize Russia during a joint press conference with Putin, and appeared to side with Putin's denials of election interference. Trump later said he misspoke during the remarks.

"I see it continuing to happen with Russia and Iran and probably with others - domestic and foreign - who just like the chaos that some of the social media activity creates," Hosko said. "I think we are largely defensive and very often, realizing the harm after the damage has been done."

When asked whether the U.S. is doing enough to deter Russia, Hosko replied, "I think the proof is these additional online campaigns."

The latest Facebook announcement comes amid heightened concern that Russia will continue to target U.S. elections, including the upcoming November midterms.

Recently, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats declared that the "warning lights are blinking red again" on Russians carrying out cyberattacks.

Fears about Russia's extensive efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential race also triggered legislation in the Senate that, if signed into law, would set guidelines for how the U.S. will respond to foreign adversaries carrying out attacks or malicious activity against U.S. election systems.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act of 2018 (DETER Act), a sanctions bill that aims to do just what its name suggests: deter foreign adversaries from interfering in U.S. elections.

Van Hollen says the DETER Act will make the U.S. proactively respond to foreign aggressors who carry out attacks on U.S. elections, rather than playing defense once an attack unfolds.

"All the testimony I've seen shows that the most effective way to change behavior is to establish very clear penalties and sanctions in advance, and make it clear that if Russia interferes in our elections, they will face much tougher sanctions," Van Hollen said in a phone interview with The Hill on Friday.

"There's a big difference between sanctions as punishment and sanctions as a deterrent and the DETER Act focuses on using sanctions as a deterrent because clearly the Russians are continuing to engage in interference," added the Maryland senator, noting it is time for the Senate "to do its job and pass the DETER Act."

Some experts and lawmakers say Iran may feel motivated to interfere in U.S. affairs following Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and amid the looming threat of facing additional sanctions later this year.

"Our assumption is with us backing out of the [Iran deal] and maintaining the sanctions pressure, they will find ways to be able to push back," Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a Senate Intelligence Committee member, told The Hill. "Obviously, they can't keep up with us militarily, so they have to find some other asymmetric way to push."

"When the [nuclear] agreement was in place, they probably felt there was more curbs on their behavior than there are now," Pfeiffer told The Hill.

Experts warn that the minimal cost and the strong impact of these attacks are likely an enticing draw for foreign adversaries.  

"I think that the incentives are clear, that if they can be a force of internal division and really not face an appreciable threat of a response that they feel empowered to engage in similar misadventures," Hosko said.

In addition to the Facebook news this week, Microsoft also announced it had shut down six websites created by a hacking group known as "Fancy Bear," which has been linked to Russia's military.

Microsoft on Tuesday said the Russia-linked hackers targeted two conservative think tanks that have been critical of the Kremlin as well as the U.S. Senate domain.

Administration officials, lawmakers and experts alike have praised the efforts by tech companies to remove disinformation campaigns from their platforms.

"I think what we've seen is good news in the sense that the private sector is taking this seriously, they are taking actions to take down illegitimate accounts," Nielsen told reporters on Wednesday, a day after the news broke.

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