Hillicon Valley: Top officials raise foreign interference concerns | FBI shoots down mail-in voting fraud claim | Facebook probing platform after Wis. shooting

Hillicon Valley: Top officials raise foreign interference concerns | FBI shoots down mail-in voting fraud claim | Facebook probing platform after Wis. shooting
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Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

ELECTION SECURITY UPDATE: Top federal officials within multiple agencies on Wednesday warned of ongoing efforts by foreign adversaries to sway elections including through scanning for vulnerabilities in election infrastructure.

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The officials, however, also emphasized the strong measures that will be put in place to thwart these efforts. 

“What we know is that targeting of election infrastructure is in the playbook...it’s an option now,” a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) told reporters during a press briefing on Wednesday. “We continue to receive reports of scanning of election infrastructure as a whole.”

The official emphasized that this scanning had been “mostly unsuccessful” and was “largely scanning or probing, looking for vulnerabilities that may exist in the IT infrastructure, in this case election infrastructure.”

The senior CISA official noted that federal agencies had been working with election officials to help them manage and respond to this type of activity, including through training on how to spot and prevent attempted email phishing or ransomware attacks that could negatively impact election infrastructure on Election Day.

They noted that coordination between state and local election officials and the federal government had ramped up, and said CISA planned to set up both a classified and unclassified operations center in advance of Election Day to help coordinate and address any election threats spotted by officials. 

“We didn’t have near the visibility or awareness in 2016 that we have now,” the official said. “We are way ahead of where we were.”

Despite these strides forward, the CISA official emphasized that “uncertainty” to the election process due to the COVID-19 pandemic created “fertile ground for our adversaries to divide us,” strongly recommending that voters be vigilant in consuming election information and to be prepared for election results to be finalized later than usual.

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“The process is not going to look like what we are used to,” the senior CISA official said. “Election night results are not the final results, and there is a whole certification process to ensure the accuracy of votes.”

Focus on election security at the federal level has increased since the 2016 presidential election, when Russian agents launched a sweeping and sophisticated attack aimed at interfering in the election in favor of now-President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE.

Read more here.

THE BALLOTS ARE ALL RIGHT: A senior FBI official told reporters Wednesday that the agency had not seen any “coordinated” mail-in voter fraud effort in advance of November, undercutting President Trump’s repeatedly voiced concerns around vote by mail.

The official told reporters during a press briefing that while the FBI is aware the coronavirus pandemic would likely cause a surge in mail-in ballots this year, “we have not seen to date a coordinated national voter fraud effort.”

“It would be extraordinarily difficult to change an election through this effort alone,” they added.

For weeks Trump has criticized the practice of voting by mail and repeated unsubstantiated claims that it could lead to an increase in voter fraud, suggesting in one tweet that the November elections be delayed. 

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump tweeted last month. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Earlier this week, Twitter added a label to another tweet from Trump raising unfounded concerns around mail-in voting, noting that the tweet “violated Twitter Rules about civic and election integrity."

Many states have taken steps to allow increased mail-in voting for voters concerned about the spread of COVID-19 at the polls, while others including Oregon, Washington, Utah and Colorado were already voting almost entirely by mail. 

Read more here.

BANKERS BEWARE: A group of U.S. federal agencies on Wednesday issued an alert warning of North Korean cyber-enabled bank robbery schemes targeting financial institutions.

The Treasury Department, the FBI, U.S. Cyber Command and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned in the joint alert that a prolific North Korean hacking group known as “BeagleBoyz” had resumed targeting financial institutions. 

“Since February 2020, North Korea has resumed targeting banks in multiple countries to initiate fraudulent international money transfers and ATM cash outs,” the agencies wrote in the alert. “The recent resurgence follows a lull in bank targeting since late 2019.”

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According to the agencies, BeagleBoyz has attempted to steal $2 billion since at least 2015, and in the process have “manipulated” or “rendered inoperable” computer systems at banks and other financial institutions in almost 40 countries. 

The agencies warned that BeagleBoyz has been using malware for a “FASTCash” scheme to target payment infrastructure at banks and servers that process financial transaction messages, with the scheme dating to 2016. The scheme enabled the group to intercept financial messages and respond with messages that enabled ATM payments.

The group is affiliated with another North Korean hacking group, Lazarus, which was sanctioned by the Treasury Department last year for targeting critical infrastructure, with the agency describing the group at the time as a “controlled entity of the Government of North Korea.”

“North Korea’s widespread international bank robbery scheme that exploits critical banking systems may erode confidence in those systems and presents risks to financial institutions across the world,” the agencies wrote.

Read more here.

FACEBOOK TAKES ACTION: Facebook is investigating activity on its platform after the shooting of three protesters in Kenosha, Wis., a spokesperson for the platform told The Hill Wednesday.

A group called “Kenosha Guard” and an event promoted by the page called "Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives" have both been taken down.

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The Kenosha Guard page was removed for violating the platform's policy against militia organizations.

The page had more than 3,000 members before being taken down, according to The Verge, which first reported on both the page and the event.

Thousands have joined protests in Kenosha since police shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back multiple times on Sunday. Blake's family says he is currently paralyzed from the waist down.

On Tuesday night, two people were shot dead and another was injured during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Illinois police on Wednesday arrested Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, in connection to the shooting.

The violent escalation followed calls from militias to “protect” Kenosha from protests, a refrain that has been deployed frequently by armed groups in response to the hundreds of anti-police brutality manifestations that have taken place since the killing of George Floyd.

Read more here.

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AI AND QUANTUM GET A BOOST: The Trump administration announced more than $1 billion in funding for new research institutes focused on artificial intelligence and quantum computing on Tuesday.

The funding will be allocated to seven National Science Foundation-led AI institutes and five Department of Energy-led quantum ones over the next five years.

“Today, the Trump Administration is making an unprecedented investment to strengthen American leadership in AI and quantum, and to ensure the Nation benefits from these emerging technologies," Michael Kratsios, the White House's chief technology officer, said in a statement. "Built upon the uniquely American free market approach to technological advancement, these institutes will be world-class hubs for accelerating American innovation and building the 21st century American workforce.”

The quantum computing centers will get a boost from private sector companies including IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Applied Materials and Lockheed Martin. 

"IBM is looking forward to playing an integral role, as we combine our talent, expertise, and research capabilities to accelerate progress towards the ambitious goal of achieving Quantum Advantage and the creation of a new quantum industry," Dario Gil, IBM's research director, said.

President Trump has frequently pushed to increase funding for both AI and quantum.

Read more here.

 

A FEW LESS ROBOCALLS: A district court has permanently banned two individuals and two companies responsible for facilitating hundreds of millions of fraudulent robocalls from making or conveying any calls in the U.S. system, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Under the consent decree issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, couple Nicholas and Natasha Palumbo and their companies Ecommerce National LLC and SIP Retail will be barred from delivering prerecorded messages automatically or providing any American numbers to other individuals or entities.

The two defendants will also be barred from serving as employees, agents or consultants to any entity involved in robocalling.

The case against the Palumbos and their companies was brought by the Justice Department earlier this year. It claimed that they transmitted hundreds of millions of fraudulent calls from other entities to Americans' phones.

The calls, often originating from foreign-based entities, included millions impersonating the Social Security Administration.

Read more here.

 

GOOD DAY FOR LEGAL STREAMING SERVICES: The Justice Department and the European Union’s Eurojust agency on Wednesday brought charges against three individuals allegedly involved in an online piracy group that caused millions of dollars in losses for U.S. film studios.

The men — Umar Ahmad, George Bridi and Jonatan Correa — were indicted on charges of copyright infringement, officials said, adding that they were involved in the Sparks Group, an international organization that engaged in piracy and illegally distributed films and television shows online 

Bridi, a citizen of the United Kingdom who was also charged with wire fraud and the interstate transportation of stolen property, was arrested in Cyprus earlier this week by Interpol, and U.S. authorities plan to request his extradition. Ahmad, a citizen of Norway, has not yet been found by authorities, while Correa was arrested in Kansas on Tuesday, officials said. 

All three men face up to five years in prison if convicted on the copyright infringement charges, while Bridi faces a potential 25 additional years in prison.

The three men are alleged to have been involved in the Sparks Group since 2011, with authorities noting that the group caused “tens of millions of dollars” in damages to film studios through the illegal distribution of films and television shows. 

The Sparks Group is alleged to have fraudulently obtained DVDs and Blu-ray discs ahead of their public release by lying to distributors and then using software to compromise the copyright protections on those discs, with the films and shows then uploaded to servers controlled by the Sparks Group. 

Most of the servers, which were located in more than a dozen countries, were dismantled as part of Wednesday’s actions. 

Read more here.

 

Lighter click: The cutest thread on Twitter

An op-ed to chew on: We need workforce development for cybersecurity in the energy sector

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Evangelicals are looking for answers online. They’re finding QAnon instead. (MIT Technology  Review / Abby Ohlheiser)

How TikTok’s Talks With Microsoft Turned Into a Soap Opera (New York Times / Mike Isaac and Andrew Ross Sorkin)

Does Facebook Still Sell Discriminatory Ads? (The Markup / Jeremy Merrill)

What’s a Palantir? The Tech Industry’s Next Big I.P.O. (New York Times / Cade Metz, Erin Griffith and Kate Conger)

Salesforce Doing Layoffs A Day After Announcing Record-Breaking Profits (Motherboard / Lauren Kaori Gurley)