Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting
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LAWMAKERS WANT DETAILS: Lawmakers in the House and Senate requested briefings from key federal agencies this week around a recent alert that Chinese hackers are targeting U.S. research groups involved in developing vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19 virus.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint alert earlier this month warning that Chinese government-backed hackers had been attempting to “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.”
House request: Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, including ranking member Frank Lucas (Okla.), sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and CISA Director Christopher Krebs on Friday asking for a briefing on the threat.
The members described the alert as “extremely concerning” but “not surprising” given past Chinese intellectual property theft issues.
“We applaud your work in notifying the public to raise awareness of these threats and appreciate the resources and guidance you are providing to institutions that may be targeted,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. “Given the critical nature of the COVID-19 research being conducted at U.S. institutions, it is imperative they take the proper steps to secure their networks and take advantage of the resources your agencies have without delay.”
The members requested that the agencies provide a briefing on the threat to members and staff no later than June 22.
Senate weighs in: The request for a briefing was made two days after a group of Senate Judiciary Committee members sent a similar request to the agencies.
Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked that both Wray and Krebs brief their staff in a classified setting on the threat posed to U.S. research groups by June 20. The senators asked for details on what, if any, resources the agencies needed to continue combating state-sponsored hacking.
PAY UP: Former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday doubled down on his stance that Amazon should be paying more than it currently does in taxes.
“I don’t think any company, I don’t give a damn how big they are, the Lord almighty, should absolutely be in a position where they pay no tax and make billions and billions and billions of dollars,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said during a “Squawk Box” interview.
Biden’s response came after a question about whether Amazon, which is one of the few major companies profiting during the coronavirus pandemic, should be broken up, as his progressive former opponent and potential running mate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed.
“I think Amazon should pay their taxes,” Biden responded.
It’s unclear whether or not President Trump, a regular Amazon critic, is in support of breaking up the tech giant.
Biden was criticized by Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the Democratic primary for being too friendly toward billionaires and giant companies, such as Amazon.
Amazon responds: When asked for a comment regarding Biden’s comments, Amazon pointed to their response during a June Twitter dispute with Biden over the same topic, where he said “no company pulling in billions of dollars in profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers.”
“We’ve paid $2.6B in corporate taxes since 2016,” the company responded at the time. “We pay every penny we owe. Congress designed tax laws to encourage companies to reinvest in the American economy. We have. $200B in investments since 2011 & 300K US jobs. Assume VP Biden’s complaint is w/ the tax code, not Amazon.”
DEMOCRAT TAKES ON POLITICAL ADS: Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) is set to introduce legislation placing restrictions on political advertising on social media platforms.
The “Protecting Democracy from Disinformation Act” is aimed at limiting microtargeting, a method that uses consumer data and demographics to narrowly segment audiences.
The tactic has been criticized for allowing campaigns to avoid accountability by spreading misinformation to susceptible populations in ads not seen by the general public.
Under Cicilline’s legislation, advertisers would only be allowed to target political ads by age, gender and location.
The bill would also require disclosure of who paid for ads, how much they cost, whom they targeted and who saw them.
Platforms would be held accountable via existing Federal Election Commission authority, the right of individuals to sue and criminal penalties.
“Microtargeting is a threat to our democracy. Campaigns and foreign actors can use this technology to manipulate voters with high volumes of misleading information that is virtually impossible to keep track of,” Cicilline said in a statement Thursday night. “The American people should choose their leaders, not sophisticated data firms or foreign adversaries that have their own agendas.”
Google last year announced it would no longer allow advertisers to microtarget political messaging, limiting available factors to age, gender and ZIP code, after pressure from critics and competitors.
NOMINATION MOVES FORWARD: Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted late Thursday evening to advance President Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
The committee voted 12-10 along party lines to send Michael Pack’s nomination to the full Senate.
The vote followed a roughly hourlong, at times testy, debate over Pack’s nomination, as well as a more-than-20-minute closed session, where the audio feed was cut off so senators could privately discuss his nomination.
The meeting over Pack’s nomination was expected to be contentious. He is under investigation by the D.C. attorney general’s office for potential misuse of funds from his nonprofit, the Public Media Lab.
Democrats tried seven times during Thursday’s meeting to delay the vote on Pack’s nomination. Each was defeated on a party line vote. After the seventh, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the committee, said he would not allow additional attempts to delay the vote, arguing that they had become “dilatory.”
Risch defended the decision to move forward with Pack’s nomination, saying that he would “stand down” if the U.S. attorney general or the Department of Justice requested it.
“The hallmarks of this committee have always been civility, kindness, understanding and tolerance and I’d ask us to double down on that hallmark as we go forward with this,” he added, noting that Pack’s nomination had become a “particularly partisan matter.”
Trump announced in 2018 that he was nominating Pack to lead the agency, which has oversight of Voice of America — a frequent target of the president’s criticism.
ANOTHER AMAZON DEATH: Amazon announced Thursday that another one of its warehouse workers died from complications associated with the coronavirus.
The recent death marks eight employees the tech giant has lost because of the disease.
The worker was a woman who had been with the company since November 2018. She was staffed at Amazon’s fulfillment center just outside of Cleveland, according to NBC News.
“We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Randall, Ohio,” Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski told the network. “Her family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting her fellow colleagues.”
Levandowski said the employee’s last day of work at the center was April 30 — she was diagnosed with the virus on the same day. Her sister-in-law told the company that she had died Monday.
Lighter click: They do be doing those
An op-ed to chew on: Digital contact-tracing: The Trojan horse in the battle over data
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
Who’s advising Joe Biden on tech policy? No one in particular. (Protocol / Emily Birnbaum)
How iPhone hackers got their hands on the new iOS months before its release (Motherboard / Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai)
Grandmother’s refusal to remove photos from Facebook tests privacy law (New York Times / Adam Satariano and Claire Moses)
Frustrated Amazon shoppers vent at record levels (Washington Post / Jay Greene)
Maryland wants to perfect ‘classic’ contact tracing before launching apps (StateScoop / Benjamin Freed)