Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges

Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges
© Aaron Schwartz

Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill's newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) and Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills).



BIGGER THAN BEZOS?: Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTrump administration to impose tariffs on French products in response to digital tax Mnuchin: Next stimulus bill must cap jobless benefits at 100 percent of previous income Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Ore.) on Friday pressured the National Security Agency (NSA) on efforts to secure personal devices of government employees from foreign hackers and surveillance following news that Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosJeff Bezos's wealth hits record high 1B How competition will make the new space race flourish Just because Democrats are paranoid about the election doesn't mean there aren't problems MORE's phone was allegedly hacked by Saudi officials.

Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone asking for an update on a commitment made by former NSA Director Michael Rogers in 2018 that the agency would look into how key government institutions like the White House are guarding against hacking and surveillance operations.

He also singled out senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump: 'Shouldn't be hard' for Kanye West to take away votes from Biden Trump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' On The Money: Supreme Court upholds NY prosecutors' access to Trump's tax returns, rebuffs Congress | Trump complains of 'political prosecution' | Biden rebukes Trump, rolls out jobs plan MORE, who in 2018 reportedly communicated via WhatsApp with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sometimes referred to as MBS.

“Until the White House takes security seriously, the most sensitive secrets of this country will end up in enemy hands,” Wyden told reporters on Friday while discussing the letter. “So today, I am writing to the National Security Agency and asking them to evaluate the security risks of Jared Kushner, and other White House officials who may have messaged MBS, particularly on their personal devices.”

Bezos’s phone was allegedly hacked by Saudi officials through a compromised file sent to his phone from the WhatsApp account of the crown prince.

In Friday's letter, Wyden pointed to comments made by Dimitrios Vastakis — the former chief of computer network defense at the White House — who wrote in a memo announcing his resignation in October that “the White House is posturing itself to be electronically compromised once again.”

Wyden asked Nakasone whether the NSA believed that the White House had the capabilities to defend against cyberattacks on President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE and his staff.


In relation to the alleged hacking of Bezos’s phone — which two senior United Nations officials this week tied to efforts to silence The Washington Post’s coverage of Saudi Arabia — Wyden also asked about the security of devices of White House officials that are known to communicate with the crown prince over WhatsApp, such as Kushner.

Read more on Wyden’s concerns here.



GOOD NEWS FOR HUAWEI: The Department of Commerce has withdrawn a proposal to limit the ability of U.S. companies to sell products to Huawei after pushback from the Pentagon, multiple outlets reported Friday.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both cite individuals familiar with the matter saying that the Pentagon expressed concern about the effect the regulation could have on American businesses.

The Department of Commerce placed Huawei on the “entity list” in May, preventing U.S. firms from conducting business with the company unless they obtain a specific license, citing national security concerns with the Chinese telecommunications giant.

It has subsequently issued temporary licenses to delay that designation, but companies have already begun finding ways to continue selling equipment to Huawei without falling afoul of Commerce penalties.

One way to do that is a loophole which allows companies to sell products made outside of the U.S. to Huawei without a license, as long as the products contain less than 25 percent U.S.-made content subject to export restrictions.

The rule proposed by Commerce would reportedly have lowered that threshold to 10 percent when companies do business with Huawei.

Commerce reportedly pulled back the rule after pushback from the Pentagon.

A spokesperson for the Commerce Department told The Hill that “if or when we have something to announce, we will do so.”

Read more here.



YOUTUBER CAN SUE SAUDI ARABIA: The United Kingdom's high court on Thursday granted a Saudi dissident in London the ability to sue Saudi Arabia over an alleged hacking, The Guardian first reported.

Ghanem Almasarir, a YouTuber and outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, told The Hill on Thursday that two of his phones were hacked by Saudi Arabia "because I'm speaking up."

The case will now be handled by the U.K.'s foreign ministry, according to Almasarir.

These developments follow allegations that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the hacking of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's phone at the same time that Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi operatives. Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Lawyers for Almasarir told the Guardian that the green light from the high court shows he has an "arguable" case.

The lawsuit accuses the Saudi government of orchestrating a hack against two of Almasarir’s phones on June 23, 2018, just two months after the alleged hack of Bezos's phone.


Almasarir told The Hill that his phones were examined by independent experts at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who found with a “high degree of confidence” that Saudi Arabia was behind the hack.

Saudi Arabia has denied it hacked Bezos' phone, but has yet to comment on Almasarir’s case.

Read more here.


SOROS SAYS FACEBOOK IN TRUMP CAMP: Democratic mega-donor and billionaire George Soros gave a speech in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday in which he claimed that tech giant Facebook would work to help reelect President Trump.

“I think there is a kind of informal mutual assistance operation or agreement developing between Trump and Facebook,” Soros said at the World Economic Forum, according to Bloomberg.

“Facebook will work together to re-elect Trump, and Trump will work to protect Facebook so that this situation cannot be changed and it makes me very concerned about the outcome for 2020.”


Soros did not offer any evidence to back up his claims, Bloomberg reported.

A spokesman for Facebook dismissed the remarks in a brief statement to The Hill, calling Soros's comments "just plain wrong."

Read more on Soros’s comments here.


WARREN HITS BRAZIL OVER GREENWALD CHARGES: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenIn politics, as in baseball, it ain't over till it's over Trump defends Roger Stone move: He was target of 'Witch Hunt' Democrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' MORE (D-Mass.) called on Brazil to drop cyber crime charges against an American journalist who reported on leaked cell phone messages from Brazilian officials in a story raising concerns about corruption inside the government. 

Warren, who is also a top-tier presidential candidate, called the charges against journalist Glenn Greenwald an attack on a free and open press. 

“The Bolsonaro government is pursuing state retaliation against Glenn Greenwald because of his work as a journalist to expose public abuse and corruption. Brazil should drop the charges immediately and stop its attacks on a free and open press,” Warren tweeted Thursday. 

Brazilian federal prosecutors charged Greenwald, a co-founding editor of The Intercept, with cyber crimes over publication of articles based on the leaked messages, including the publication of private phone conversations involving Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro.

Greenwald pushed back strongly on the charges, and called the accusation “an obvious attempt to attack a free press in retaliation for the revelations we reported about Minister Moro and the Bolsonaro government.” 

Read more here.



PLEASE PROBE: Bipartisan committee leaders are calling for a watchdog investigation into the top office tasked with advising the White House on telecommunications issues.

In a letter on Friday, the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into "breakdowns" at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an embattled office within the Commerce Department that has been accused of inefficiency and lackluster leadership during the Trump administration.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and ranking member Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenRepublicans are working to close the digital divide Fauci gives Congress COVID-19 warning Fauci: We need more testing, not less MORE (R-Ore.) wrote they are concerned that NTIA has abdicated its responsibility to help government agencies coordinate on technology issues.

Specifically, NTIA is tasked with mediating fights among federal agencies over spectrum — the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over. Typically, the Commerce Department office mediates those arguments behind closed doors and makes final calls over which agencies should have access to which kinds of federal spectrum.

But over the past year, those conflicts have spilled out into the open as top officials within NTIA found themselves bogged down by infighting at the Commerce Department and escalating clashes with other agencies. Over the past year, agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the Department of Defense and more have fought publicly over spectrum issues. 

Read more here.


TESLA MOVES ON UP: Tesla is now the second most valuable car company in the world after overtaking Germany's Volkswagen.

On Wednesday, market capitalization for Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHouse appropriators cut NASA's moon landing funds; will Senate do better? The Hill's 12:30 Report- Presented by Facebook - Trump threatens schools' funding over reopening NASA, China and the UAE are scheduled to send missions to Mars in July MORE's company broke $100 billion, a first for a listed U.S. automaker, Reuters reported.

The surge in stock value has allowed Tesla to overtake several of its more established competitors. It is now second only to Japan's Toyota, which has a market cap of $233 billion.

But even with its stock gains, many in the auto industry are skeptical that Tesla will be able to consistently increase its profits.

Forward sales estimates indicate Tesla will gross $31 billion over the next 12 months, a figure that would not put the company among the top 20 automakers when it comes to demand.

By comparison, Toyota is expected to make $276 billion, Volkswagen $283 billion and Daimler $191 billion, according to Reuters.

Read more here.




AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Huawei endangers Western values 



Inside the secret Twitter rooms where Debra Messing, Don Cheadle, and the rest of the celebrity #Resistance organizes (Vox / Emily Stewart) 

Justice Department plans Section 230 meeting (The Information / Ashley Gold)

Where U.S. presidential candidates stand on breaking up Big Tech (Reuters / Elizabeth Culliford) 

Former top intelligence official moves to Microsoft (CyberScoop / Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)