Hillicon Valley: Trump officials detail global threats | FBI chief calls China top counterintelligence problem | Leaders warn Russia already looking at 2020 | EU calls for action on fake news | Apple sees iPhone sales drop

Hillicon Valley: Trump officials detail global threats | FBI chief calls China top counterintelligence problem | Leaders warn Russia already looking at 2020 | EU calls for action on fake news | Apple sees iPhone sales drop
© Greg Nash

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, Olivia Beavers (@olivia_beavers) and Jacqueline Thomsen (@jacq_thomsen), and the tech team, Harper Neidig (@hneidig).

The Hill's Cyber and Tech teams want to welcome our newest reporter, Emily Birnbaum. Follow her at @birnbaum_e.

 

THE THREAT LANDSCAPE: Top leaders in the intelligence community provided their assessment of the worldwide threat landscape on Tuesday, painting a picture in which known adversaries are growing stronger and closer together.

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During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on their findings, intelligence leaders also directly contradicted President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE's claims on a series of fronts, including his statements on North Korea and Iran's nuclear developments as well as the strength of ISIS.

 

Here are some highlights:

The intelligence officials identified both Russia and China as growing threats.

China: The intelligence officials said they believe China currently poses the most dangerous and complex counterintelligence threat to the nation.

"As I look at the landscape today and over the course of my career... the Chinese counterintelligence threat is more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of," FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

A threat assessment by the intelligence community also released Tuesday found that China "presents a persistent cyber espionage threat and a growing attack threat to our core military and critical infrastructure systems."

"China remains the most active strategic competitor responsible for cyber espionage against the US Government, corporations, and allies," the report states, adding that the country also "has the ability to launch cyber attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure" in the U.S. 

Read more on Wray's remarks here.

 

Russia: Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray Coats10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall 11 Essential reads you missed this week Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE told lawmakers that U.S. adversaries like Russia and China "probably already are looking to the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests."

"U.S. adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the United States and elsewhere," Coats said.

He added that the U.S. intelligence community expects those adversaries "to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other's experiences, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections."

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia successfully interfered in the 2016 election. However, Coats said late last year that while Russia and others launched influence campaigns ahead of the midterm elections, individual races were not compromised.

Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have faced intense criticism for not doing enough to combat Russian misinformation campaigns that emerged on their platforms during the 2016 election.

FBI Director Wray said foreign countries are continuing to use social media to influence American opinion.

However, both Wray and Coats said social media companies are now working far more closely with the intelligence community in attempting to cut down those efforts.

More on the threats to 2020 here.

 

And Russia and China are teaming up...: U.S. intelligence leaders warned Tuesday that Russia and China are becoming increasingly aligned as the two nations seek to compete against the U.S. and its allies.

"Moscow's relationship with Beijing is closer than it has been in many decades," Coats told lawmakers.

"At the same time, some US allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing US policies on security and trade and are becoming more open to new bilateral and multilateral partnerships," the report states.

The intelligence assessment says Russia and China are seeking to assert their dominance over the international system by growing stronger "across all domains," including racing for "technological and military superiority."

More on the double threat here.

 

NEED MORE TO WORRY ABOUT?

North Korea: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats threw cold water on the idea that North Korea will fully get rid of nuclear weapon stockpiles, stating that the hermit nation views these capabilities as key to its survival.

"We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities," Coats told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the panel's worldwide threats hearing.

The country is "unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival," he continued.

The intelligence assessment appears to dismiss the possibility that the Trump administration can reach its stated goal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. More on that here.

 

Iran: Speaking on behalf of the other officials at the hearing, Coats said the intelligence community also found that Iran is not currently seeking to develop its nuclear weapons capabilities.

"We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device," their assessment reads.

The assessment warns though that Iranian officials are threatening to begin building up the country's nuclear capabilities if Tehran "does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected" from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an Obama-era deal that Trump withdrew the U.S. from last year.

The president, who bashed the agreement as "the worst deal ever" and "defective at its core," claimed that if the deal remained in place, Iran "will be on the cusp of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons." More on Iran here.

 

The Islamic State: While Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel said the U.S. had made significant gains against ISIS, the report they oversaw argues that any lifting of pressure on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could allow it to regroup.

"The group will exploit any reduction in [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations," the report states.

The report also warned that ISIS is still likely to try to attack the United States.

More on ISIS here.

 

EU CALLS FOR MORE ACTION ON FAKE NEWS: The European Union is calling on U.S. tech giants to step up their efforts against disinformation on their platforms as the EU prepares for new elections.

The EU's enforcement body, the European Commission, lauded Google, Facebook, Twitter and Mozilla on Tuesday for steps they have taken but said more needs to be done.

"Signatories have taken action, for example giving people new ways to get more details about the source of a story or ad," Andrus Ansip, the commission's vice president for the digital single market, said in a statement. "Now they should make sure these tools are available to everyone across the EU, monitor their efficiency, and continuously adapt to new means used by those spreading disinformation. There is no time to waste."

The companies and some of their trade associations signed a commitment this month to better combat the spread of disinformation, and this week they submitted their first progress reports on the effort.

The commission's Code of Practice calls for transparency around political ads, a crackdown on bots and fake accounts and making data available for researchers. Read more here.

 

FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE TAKE HEAT AFTER MEDIA LAYOFFS: Critics are targeting Facebook and Google after a week of high-profile layoffs in the media industry, pointing to their dominance over internet ads as the reason news outlets are struggling.

BuzzFeed announced last week that it would be cutting 15 percent of its staff, including 43 journalists in its news division. The same day, HuffPost's parent company Verizon said it's planning to lay off 7 percent of its media division, which also includes Yahoo News. And Gannett, the local newspaper holding company that publishes USA Today, began a new round of cuts to its regional outlets.

Some are laying the blame with owners and hedge funds, while others say that the internet itself has made it harder to sustain a successful media outlet.

But many, including some high-profile Democratic lawmakers, are pointing to Facebook's and Google's power over the market for online ad revenue as the reason news outlets are struggling to establish a stable business model.

The two companies take in the majority of internet advertising revenue in the U.S. and critics say that the current state of affairs leaves little for newspapers hurt after years of declining print revenue. Read more here.

 

IRAN IS AT IT AGAIN: A cyber espionage group linked to Iran has targeted telecommunications and high-tech industries in order to steal personal information, according to a new report.

Cybersecurity firm FireEye announced Tuesday that it has added the newly identified group called APT39 to its growing list of advanced persistent threats.

"APT39's focus on personal information likely supports the planning, monitoring, and tracking of intelligence operations that serve Iran's national priorities," Benjamin Read, FireEye's senior manager of Cyber Espionage Analysis, said in a statement.

The espionage group's cyber heists are hitting a series of targets, according to FireEye.

"While APT39's targeting scope is global, its activities are concentrated in the Middle East. APT39 has prioritized the telecommunications sector, with additional targeting of the travel industry and IT firms that support it and the high-tech industry," the report reads.

APT39 is different from other Iranian groups tracked by FireEye because of its focus on personal data, the firm said.

The release of the report comes on the same day that U.S. intelligence leaders unveiled their latest "Worldwide Threat Assessment," which warns that Iran continues to "present a cyber espionage and attack threat" to the U.S. and its allies.

"Iran uses increasingly sophisticated cyber techniques to conduct espionage; it is also attempting to deploy cyber attack capabilities that would enable attacks against critical infrastructure in the United States and allied countries," the intelligence report warns.

U.S. officials described in the report how Iran has sophisticated capabilities and could cause major disruptions for a large company -- from days to weeks.

More on the group here.

 

FIGHTING "FRIENDLY FRAUD": Democratic Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies MORE (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) are demanding answers from Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach Social media never intended to be in the news business — but just wait till AI takes over Facebook exploring deals with media outlets for news section: report MORE about recently unsealed court documents that show the tech giant knowingly tricked children into spending their parents' money without permission.

Markey and Blumenthal, members of the Senate Commerce Committee, called the revelations in a Center for Investigative Reporting report last week "highly troubling."

"A new report from The Center for Investigative Reporting shows that your company had a policy of willful blindness toward credit card charges by children – internally referred to as 'friendly fraud' – in order to boost revenue at the expense of parents," Markey and Blumenthal wrote in the letter.

"Notably, Facebook appears to have rejected a plan that would have effectively mitigated this risk and instead doubled down on maximizing revenue," they added. "We write to request additional information about these highly-troubling allegations."

The senators are demanding Zuckerberg answer questions including when Facebook first became aware that children were spending their parents' money, what policy changes have been implemented at the company since the class-action lawsuit, whether the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has contacted Facebook over the issue, and more.

Markey and Blumenthal are asking for a response to their letter to Zuckerberg by Feb. 19.

More on the controversy here.

 

SEEMS FINE AND NORMAL: Apple said Monday that it is working to fix a FaceTime bug that allows iPhone users to hear through someone else's iPhone even if the person doesn't answer a FaceTime call.

A spokesperson for Apple told CNBC that the company will release a software update this week with a fix to the bug.

"We're aware of this issue and we have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week," the spokesperson said.

The bug has been reported by CNBC, The Verge and 9to5Mac. According to the media reports, the bug occurs when a user makes a FaceTime call to another user and then adds themselves to the call through the group call feature.

More on the bug here.

 

HOUSE WILL EXAMINE T-MOBILE-SPRINT DEAL: Two House committees will hold a joint hearing next month on the $26 billion T-Mobile-Sprint merger, the chairmen of the committees announced Monday.

The Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees will hold the hearing on Feb. 13. T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure will both testify at the hearing.

The merger would combine two of the four major wireless carriers in the U.S. The two companies last month won security approvals for the merger.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care: Insurance lobby chief calls Biden, Sanders health plans 'similarly bad' | Trump officials appeal drug price disclosure ruling | Study finds 1 in 7 people ration diabetes medicine due to cost House Democratic chairman launches probe of e-cigarette makers Lawmakers criticize EPA draft rule for curbing rights to challenge pollution permits MORE (D-N.J.) said in a joint statement that the hearing is necessary to "examine the effects on important issues like jobs, costs to consumers, innovation and competition."

More on the hearings here.

 

LGBTQ+ ACTIVISTS PUSH GOOGLE: Google is facing pressure from activists to remove an app from its "Google Play" store made by a group that has allegedly described being gay as a "sickness." 

The app, developed by Living Hope Ministries, promotes the controversial and unproven practice of gay conversion therapy while claiming that LGBT people live with "sickness," "addiction" and "sin," according to NBC News.

A New York state senator and activists at Truth Wins Out have urged tech companies to remove the application from their services.

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"Google [is] planning to have about 7,000 employees in our Senate district, so I would urge them to remove the app post-haste," New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) told The Verge.

Apple, which runs its own app store, removed the app late last month. 

More here.

 

A LIGHTER CLICK: The new way to do things.

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Apple is blowing it. (Gizmodo)

Amazon to fund computer science classes in over 130 NYC high schools. (TechCrunch)

Elon Musk's highflying 2018: What 150,000 miles in a private jet reveal about his 'excruciating' year. (The Washington Post)

Group FaceTime disabled following security concerns. (The Verge)