Overnight Cybersecurity

Hillicon Valley: Chinese tech groups caught in rising US-China tensions | Senator questions controversial facial recognition group on use during protests | Study finds vulnerabilities in online voting system used by several states

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

BAD FOR BUSINESS: Tensions between the U.S. and China amid the COVID-19 crisis are turning into a major headache for Chinese-owned tech companies, including telecom giant Huawei and social media app TikTok.

Notable shift: Lawmakers were already wary of Chinese tech groups before the outbreak of the coronavirus due to a 2017 law that requires all Chinese companies and citizens to share sensitive information with the Chinese government if asked. 

But the mood on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration is turning even further against these Chinese groups amid tensions with Beijing over the origins of the COVID-19 crisis, the recent crackdown on Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade war. 

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that the current relationship between the U.S. and China is “difficult.”

“I sense a growing hawkishness towards China,” King told reporters on Friday. “I think it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that right now the relationship with China is not good, and what we are talking about now with Huawei is just one piece of it,” he added.

King signed on as a co-sponsor last week to the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act, a bill that aims to invest in creating alternatives to telecom equipment from Chinese telecom groups Huawei and ZTE. 

He told reporters that he hoped the bill, which has bipartisan backing from the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would move forward in the next few months. 

“We are going to try to find a vehicle for sure, and I don’t think it should be terribly controversial, this isn’t a regulatory bill,” King said. “We are going to try to move it one way or another, hopefully sometime this summer.”

Major company in the spotlight: Huawei, which is the biggest producer of 5G equipment worldwide, has been a target of suspicion both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Trump administration and bipartisan lawmakers have taken a multitude of steps to limit the company’s ability to do business in the U.S., including effectively blacklisting Huawei and designating the company as a national security threat. 

In the most recent blow to Huawei, the Commerce Department issued a rule restricting Huawei’s ability to use American technology and software to manufacture semiconductors, blocking the company from accessing a large share of chip production. 

Don Morrissey, Huawei’s director of congressional affairs, told The Hill that he was concerned about the geopolitical situation worsening Huawei’s relationship with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“It does impact how people feel about us specifically,” Morrissey said, pointing to the ongoing trade war and increased conflict over China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Read more about concerns here. 


MARKEY HAS SOME QUESTIONS: Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday sent a letter to Clearview AI pressing the controversial facial recognition company to ensure its product is not being used to monitor protests against police brutality that have erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd.

Multiple reports have found that police departments in some of the cities that have seen protests have partnered with Clearview, a company that has been under intense scrutiny since it was discovered in January to have amassed a database of more than 3 billion photos collected by scraping social media.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, 10 users ran more than 160 searches with the tool, according to BuzzFeed News.

The sheriff’s office that oversees Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, reportedly conducted almost 400 searches among 10 Clearview accounts.

Markey’s letter to Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That raised concerns that those law enforcement officials could be using the technology to identify protesters.

“As demonstrators across the country exercise their First Amendment rights by protesting racial injustice, it is important that law enforcement does not use technological tools to stifle free speech or endanger members of the public,” he wrote.

“I urge you to take every step necessary to ensure that your technology will not force Americans to choose between sacrificing their rights to privacy or remaining silent in the face of injustice,” he added.

The letter, the third Markey has sent to Clearview, called for the company to undergo an independent assessment of its technology.

Read more about Markey’s concerns here. 


MORE ELECTION SECURITY CONCERNS: Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Michigan found multiple security vulnerabilities in an online voting tool being used by at least three states.

The study evaluated Democracy Live’s OmniBallot, a program that Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia are using to allow military personnel and voters with disabilities to cast ballots. The company also has a contract with the Defense Department to provide ballots to military personnel overseas.

According to the paper published Sunday, the system opens up the voting process to a range of vulnerabilities that could lead to election interference.

“We conclude that using OmniBallot for electronic ballot return represents a severe risk to election security and could allow attackers to alter election results without detection,” the researchers wrote.

The OmniBallot system consists of voters receiving step-by-step directions emailed through Democracy Live’s cloud portal, hosted by Amazon Web Services. Voters are then able to submit the ballot electronically or mail it back to state officials.

Researchers said a malware virus on a voter’s device could manipulate their ballot selections, and that Democracy Live did not do enough to protect the private information of voters from use in disinformation campaigns or targeted ads.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing election officials to consider new methods of voting, some states have considered moving the process online. The authors of the report cautioned against this, despite the increased chance to keep voters safe while allowing disabled voters to cast their ballots.

“Increasing voter access is a laudable goal,” the researchers wrote. “Voters who are sick, disabled, or stationed overseas sometimes face substantial obstacles to participation, and the coronavirus pandemic threatens to disrupt in-person voting for everyone. However, elections also face substantial risks from cyberattacks — risks that are magnified when delivering or returning ballot online.”

Read more about the report here. 


BEZOS TAKES A STAND: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said he’s “happy to lose” some business over his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a remark that came in response to a customer’s racist rant.

Bezos posted the customer’s email on Instagram over the weekend, redacting both the sender’s last name and use of a racial slur. The customer, whose first name is listed as Dave, said he was withdrawing an order after hearing about Bezos’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I was placing an order with your company when I discovered your statement in support for Black Lives Matter,” the customer wrote. “Maintain your stance and we will watch your profits decline and laugh about it. My business relationship with you is over.”

Bezos responded by sharing a screenshot of the email, writing: “This sort of hate shouldn’t be allowed to hide in the shadows. It’s important to make it visible. This is just one example of the problem. And, Dave, you’re the kind of customer I’m happy to lose.”

Bezos, who is also owner of The Washington Post, recently pledged $10 million on Amazon’s behalf to organizations that work for social justice.

“The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black and African Americans is unacceptable,” the company wrote Wednesday in a blog post. “We believe Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with our Black employees, customers, and partners, and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.”

Read more about Bezos’s remarks here. 


ACCOUNTS REMOVED: Facebook removed nearly 200 social media accounts connected with white supremacy groups that were planning to encourage members to attend protests over police brutality and killings of black people.

Some of the accounts encouraged members to bring guns to the demonstrations, The Associated Press reported.

Accounts were removed from both Facebook and Instagram. They were reportedly tied to the Proud Boys and the American Guard, which are considered hate groups under Facebook’s user guidelines and are already banned from the social media platform.

Officials were monitoring the accounts prior to their removal and removed them after they saw posts attempting to exploit ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody.

“We saw that these groups were planning to rally supporters and members to physically go to the protests and in some cases were preparing to go with weapons,” said Brian Fishman, Facebook’s director of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations policy.

Facebook did not provide details of the account users or precisely where their plans for protests were located but said “approximately” 190 accounts were removed from the platform.

Read more about Facebook’s decision here. 


An op-ed to chew on: Social media platforms genuinely need some form of government regulation


Biden Pours Millions Into Facebook Ads, Blowing Past Trump’s Record (New York Times / Shane Goldmacher)

Reinventing tech’s pipeline: Inside the effort to boost black and Latinx talent (Protocol / Lauren Hepler) 

Huawei launches media blitz as UK weighs its role in 5G networks (BBC News / Gordon Corera)

Tags Angus King Ed Markey Jeff Bezos

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