Hillicon Valley: Experts raise security concerns about online voting | Musk finds supporter in Trump | Officials warn that Chinese hackers targeting COVID-19 research groups

Hillicon Valley: Experts raise security concerns about online voting | Musk finds supporter in Trump | Officials warn that Chinese hackers targeting COVID-19 research groups
© Getty Images

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 our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

ONLINE VOTING WOES: Experts are sounding alarms about potential security risks as several states consider allowing online voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia are planning to allow overseas military personnel and voters with disabilities to return their ballots electronically for elections this year amid concerns about voting in person during a pandemic. 

But federal officials and cybersecurity experts are strongly urging states to stay away from online voting, arguing that it could open up new avenues for interference less than four years after Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. 

New guidelines: The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) joined a group of federal agencies in condemning the idea of online voting in guidelines first reported by The Guardian.

The guidelines, sent to states privately, described online voting as “high risk.”

“Electronic ballot return, the digital return of a voted ballot by the voter, creates significant security risks to voted ballot integrity, voter privacy, ballot secrecy, and system availability,” the agencies wrote in the guidelines. “Securing the return of voted ballots via the internet while maintaining voter privacy is difficult, if not impossible, at this time.”

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has also warned against electronic voting, and members of Congress have railed against the practice, citing security concerns.

Concerns: Russian state-backed actors targeted U.S. election infrastructure, including voter registration systems, in all 50 states in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, according to the Intelligence Community (IC) and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE.


In February, reports emerged that IC officials had told the House Intelligence Committee that Russia was again attempting to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. 

But despite concerns around the ability of foreign actors to target online systems, some states are forging ahead with limited electronic voting, while highlighting the security controls in place. 

Read more about election concerns here.


MUSK FINDS ALLIES: Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskThe four horsemen of US green energy development Cancer survivor to be the youngest American in space, first with prosthetic body part The UAE's Hope, China's Tainwen-1 and NASA's Perseverance arrive at Mars MORE is escalating his public opposition to government efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and in doing so he’s found a cheerleader in President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney: 'Pretty sure' Trump would win 2024 GOP nomination if he ran for president Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Trump says 'no doubt' Tiger Woods will be back after accident MORE.

The Tesla founder and CEO recently announced that he would reopen a plant for the electric car maker in California against county orders and would move operations out of the state if he meets resistance. On Monday night, he tweeted that he would reopen the facility in Fremont, Calif., offering himself up to arrest if Alameda County officials decided to block his move.

Trump chimes in: The tweets this week from the mercurial CEO were the latest in a series of outbursts that have drawn attention and scrutiny. But this time, his efforts were met with support from Trump, whose administration is eager to move past the pandemic and reopen businesses across the country.

“California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinOn The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Mnuchin expected to launch investment fund seeking backing from Persian Gulf region: report Larry Kudlow debuts to big ratings on Fox Business Network MORE also voiced his support for Musk, telling CNBC on Monday that “California should prioritize doing whatever they need to do to solve those health issues so that he can open quickly and safely, or they’re going to find, as he’s threatened, he’s moving his production to a different state.”

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Law enforcement officials blame Pentagon 'reluctance' to deploy National Guard in first hearing on Capitol attack | Watchdog report finds Pentagon didn't fully evaluate border deployment requests | Biden's UN ambassador confirmed Top cops deflect blame over Capitol attack Sanders votes against Biden USDA nominee Vilsack MORE (R-Texas) encouraged Musk to move Tesla’s operations to Texas, where residents “very much want to open up and get back to work.”

Trump has praised Musk before, calling him one of the world’s “great geniuses” during a CNBC interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year.

Early in Trump’s presidency, Musk joined a White House advisory council but later left when Trump announced he would be pulling out of the Paris climate accord.

That move by Musk was more in line with his earlier views on Trump. A few days before the 2016 election, Musk told CNBC that Trump “is probably not the right guy” to be president, adding that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCruz: Wife 'pretty pissed' about leaked Cancun texts CBC would back Young for OMB if Tanden falls Hillary Clinton to co-write political thriller MORE’s economic and environmental policies “are the right ones.”

But whether Trump’s latest embrace of Musk will help the entrepreneur prevail in California is yet to be seen.


Read more here.

Related: Colorado governor pitches Musk on moving Tesla operations out of state


CHINESE HACKING FEARS: The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber agency on Wednesday warned that Chinese government-backed hackers are targeting U.S. organizations developing vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 virus.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the FBI said in the joint alert that the agencies hoped to “raise awareness” of threats posed to research groups by Chinese malicious actors. 

“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research,” the agencies warned. “The potential theft of this information jeopardizes the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options.”

The agencies recommended that organizations conducting research into COVID-19 automatically assume they will be a major target of hackers, and that they increase cybersecurity. Tips included using multifactor authorization for accounts and patching vulnerabilities as quickly as possible.


“The FBI and CISA urge all organizations conducting research in these areas to maintain dedicated cybersecurity and insider threat practices to prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material,” the agencies wrote.

Some key leaders on Capitol Hill have pushed for action to be taken to push back against Chinese cyberattacks.

Read more here.


CYBER DEFENSE MEASURES: Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonTop cops deflect blame over Capitol attack NRSC chair Scott calls for party unity: 'The Republican Civil War is now cancelled' GOP senator raises uncorroborated claims about 'provocateurs,' 'fake Trump supporters' at Capitol riot hearing MORE (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that he was pushing for inclusion of measures meant to defend the United States against cyber threats in the upcoming annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 

Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said during a virtual committee hearing on cyber threats that he hoped to include a provision creating a federal national cybersecurity leadership position in the NDAA. 

“We are working hard to get included in the NDAA so it can become law, there is the need to put someone in charge, a national cyber director,” Johnson said.


Lack of cyber leadership: There is currently no central federal leader for cybersecurity. The departments of Defense and Homeland Security (DHS), along with the intelligence community and the FBI, address cyber threats, but the Trump administration has lacked a central lead since the White House cybersecurity coordinator position was eliminated in 2018. 

Johnson also voiced his support for including a provision that would give DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) the ability to subpoena internet service providers for information on vulnerabilities detected critical infrastructure networks. A House committee approved a bill around this issue in January. 

“It’s a very necessary authority that CISA needs, and I am going to ask everybody on our committee to do everything, by hook or by crook, to hopefully get into the NDAA as well,” Johnson said. 

Cyber commission recommendations: Both recommendations were backed by the Cybersecurity Solarium Commission (CSC), a group created by Congress in 2018 to evaluate the cyber risks to the United States. The group, which includes members of Congress and federal agency leaders, was charged with laying out recommendations on how to defend the nation against these threats. 

The CSC submitted its report, which included over 75 recommendations on how to prevent a cyber doomsday scenario, in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world. 

Sen. Angus KingAngus KingTop cops deflect blame over Capitol attack Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill New rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees MORE (I-Maine), a co-chair of the commission, testified Wednesday that cyber threats were only “magnified” by COVID-19, as attempted hacks on healthcare and research groups involved in fighting the virus have spiked.

“We have to communicate that to our colleagues, that this isn’t something academic, this is coming at us, this isn’t something that may come at us, it’s coming at today,” King said, adding that the private sector is “being pinged millions of times a day by malicious actors.”

Read more here.


AMAZON EXTENDS HAZARD PAY: Amazon is extending a $2 hourly pay raise for workers through the end of May, company spokesman Timothy Carter told The Hill on Tuesday.

It will also extend double overtime pay in the U.S. and Canada.

"These extensions increase our total investment in pay during COVID-19 to nearly $800 million for our hourly employees and partners," Carter said in a statement.

The online retail giant first instituted the hazard pay for warehouse and fulfillment center workers in March. It was set to expire at the end of April before being extended through May 16.

Amazon has seen demand for its services surge during the coronavirus pandemic and has hired well over 100,000 new workers.

Workers at warehouses and fulfillment centers — as well as tech workers — have been critical of Amazon's handling of that new demand and the pandemic more broadly.

Read more here.


DEMS PUSH FOR COLLEGE INTERNET ACCESS: Democrats in both chambers introduced legislation on Wednesday aimed at ensuring that all college students have internet access amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act allocates $1 billion for a fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration targeted for students lacking internet access.

The funding would be used directly for internet connections as well as equipment like hot spots and Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Schools receiving funding would be required to prioritize students eligible for financial aid.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFive big takeaways on the Capitol security hearings Top cops deflect blame over Capitol attack Ex-Capitol Police chief did not get FBI report warning of violence on Jan. 6 MORE (D-Minn.), who is leading the bill's introduction in the Senate, said in a statement that "ensuring college and university students have access to high-speed internet is critical" during the pandemic.

Klobuchar was joined by Sens. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoTrump lawyers center defense around attacks on Democrats Hillicon Valley: Democratic senators unveil bill to reform Section 230 | Labor board denies Amazon request to delay local union vote | Robinhood lifts restrictions on GameStop, other stocks Democratic senators introduce bill to limit Section 230 protections MORE (D-Hawaii), Gary PetersGary PetersTop cops deflect blame over Capitol attack Law enforcement officials lay out evidence Capitol riot was 'coordinated' attack Hillicon Valley: Biden to take 'executive action' to address SolarWinds breach | Facebook and Google respond to Australian proposed law | DOJ charges North Korean hackers with stealing .3 billion in cryptocurrency MORE (D-Mich.) and Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenDemocratic senator demands Rand Paul wear a mask on Senate floor Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (D-Nev.) in introducing the Senate bill.

Democratic Reps. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHouse panel to dive into misinformation debate Hillicon Valley: Google lifting ban on political ads | DHS taking steps on cybersecurity | Controversy over TV 'misinformation rumor mills' House Democrats demand answers on TV 'misinformation rumor mills' MORE (Calif.), Doris MatsuiDoris Okada MatsuiOvernight Health Care: CDC panel recommends who gets vaccine first | McConnell offering new relief bill | Hahn downplays White House meeting on vaccines Cyberattack forces shutdown of Baltimore County schools for the day Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg and Dorsey return for another hearing | House passes 5G funding bill | Twitter introduces 'fleets' MORE (Calif.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldBickering Democrats return with divisions Congress must protect kidney disease patients during the COVID-19 pandemic The time for HELP is now: Senate should pass bill to expedite recovery following natural disasters MORE (N.C.), Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeSanders votes against Biden USDA nominee Vilsack Senate confirms Vilsack as Agriculture secretary Biden's infrastructure plan needs input from cities and regions MORE (Ohio), Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroTexas governor faces criticism over handling of winter storm fallout DC bureau chief for The Intercept: Impeachment managers became 'like the dog who caught the car' when permitted to call witnesses Key GOP senators question when Trump knew Capitol was breached MORE (Texas), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.) and Alma AdamsAlma Shealey AdamsHouse Democrats call on Biden to fill Postal Service Board vacancies to pave way for ousting DeJoy Overnight Health Care: New COVID-19 cases nationally drop below 100K for first time in 2021 | CDC warns states against lifting restrictions amid threat of virus variants | Health officials warn COVID-19 eradication unlikely Black maternal health omnibus package introduced by Democratic lawmakers MORE (N.C.) introduced the House companion legislation.

Read more.


Lighter click: Good neighbor

An op-ed to chew on: America's digital Sputnik moment


Current and ex-employees allege Google drastically rolled back diversity and inclusion programs (April Glaser / NBC News)

Widening rift on mergers during pandemic divides Democrats and Republicans (Politico / Cristiano Lima and Betsy Woodruff Swan)

COVID-19 is fueling a boom in the doomsday bunker market, thanks to some dubious marketing claims (Verge / Zoe Schiffer)

Gig Workers Say Most Restaurants Have Banned Them From Using Their Bathrooms (Motherboard / Lauren Kaori Gurley)