Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns

Bonnie Cash

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.

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

SUBPOENAS COMING SOON: The GOP chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee is planning to subpoena the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter to testify at an Oct. 1 hearing on the law that gives tech companies a legal liability shield if they do not agree to appear voluntarily by Thursday night.

A spokesperson for the committee confirmed to The Hill that Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) intends to issue the subpoenas and believes their testimony to be crucial.

Politico first reported on the subpoena threat.

Spokespeople for Twitter and Facebook declined to comment. A spokesperson for Google did not immediately return a request for comment.

The hearing is set to focus on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is considered the bedrock of the modern internet law.

The 1996 law, which has come under increased scrutiny since President Trump targeted it in an executive order in May, gives internet companies immunity from lawsuits for content posted on their sites by third parties and allows them to make “good faith” efforts to moderate content.

The threat of having that protection revoked has increasingly been proposed as a cudgel to compel platforms to make changes by lawmakers, especially ones on the right.

Wicker, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), introduced a bill last month that would only extend the protection to companies that restrict access to content where it has the “reasonable belief” it falls into one of the specified categories in the 1996 act. 

Read more here.

…BUT A KEY DEMOCRAT IS OPPOSED: The top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday announced she would oppose the GOP chairman’s plan to issue subpoenas for the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter to testify at a hearing next month about a law that gives companies a legal liability shield. 

Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a veteran of the tech world, came out against the subpoenas Thursday evening, arguing it would be counter-productive. 

“Taking the extraordinary step of issuing subpoenas is an attempt to chill the efforts of these companies to remove lies, harassment, and intimidation from their platforms,” she said in a statement.

“I am happy to work with my colleagues to hold further substantive, bipartisan hearings on how platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter need to improve. But I will not participate in an attempt to use the committee’s serious subpoena power for a partisan effort 40 days before an election.”

Read more here.

FBI DIRECTOR WEIGHS IN ON MAIL-IN VOTING: FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday cast doubts on concerns raised by some conservatives that mail-in voting could pose an increased chance of voter fraud, with Wray telling a Senate committee that widespread voter fraud would be a “major challenge” for a foreign adversary to pull off.

“We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” Wray testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing on threats to the homeland. “We have seen voter fraud at the local level from time to time, so my comments should in no way be construed as minimizing how seriously we take our responsibility to investigate such incidents.”

Wray noted that the issue of voter fraud “is on our radar, certainly to change a federal election outcome by mounting that fraud at scale would be a major challenge for an adversary, but people should make no mistake, we are vigilant as to the threat and watching it carefully because we are in uncharted new territory.”

When questioned by committee ranking member Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) on whether the FBI was monitoring any potential threats despite the lack of voter fraud tracked this year, Wray emphasized that “it’s something we would investigate seriously, aggressively.”

Wray’s comments came after mail-in voting has faced months of criticism from top officials, including President Trump.

The president has cast doubt on the safety and security of mail-in voting during a year when election officials are expecting to see a record number of ballots submitted via mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Read more here.

FISA IS STILL NEWS: Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) on Thursday spearheaded a letter that pressed the Trump administration to detail its current surveillance programs after the March expiration of the USA Freedom Act.

The letter to Attorney General William Barr and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe raised concerns that the administration may be using an executive order to illegally engage in mass surveillance.

Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981, has been used before to conduct operations without statutory authorization or congressional oversight.

“With the expiration of Section 215, we are concerned that the executive branch may, once again, be using questionable legal theories of executive authority to justify the illegal surveillance of the American people,” Jayapal and Davidson wrote in the letter, which was signed by an additional 37 representatives.

The letter raised concerns about comments made by then chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) during debate over the reauthorization suggesting that EO 12333 could be used to conduct the very same surveillance authorized by the USA Freedom Act.

A similar interpretation was used to justify Stellar Wind, the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping of American citizens’ phone calls and emails.

“If what Burr said is true, it sounds like the government thinks most of Stellar Wind is still on the table,” Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at the progressive group Demand Progress, told The Hill.

Reauthorization of the key FISA provisions outlined in Thursday’s letter under the USA Freedom Act is stalled.

Read more.

CHINESE HACKERS JUST WON’T QUIT: FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday said Chinese hackers are continuing to target U.S. companies involved in COVID-19 research and described China as the nation’s “greatest counterintelligence threat.”

“We are seeing very aggressive activity by the Chinese, and in some cases by others, to target our COVID-related research, whether it’s vaccines, treatments, testing technology, etc.,” Wray testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing on threats to the U.S. 

“Sometimes, without being too descriptive in an open setting, we can almost track a news report from some company or research institution that is announcing or revealing some progress … and then almost within days we will see cyber targeting that ties back to Chinese actors focusing on those institutions,” Wray said. 

When questioned by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) about the types of information the Chinese actors were targeting, Wray said that the efforts were aimed at helping China get ahead of the U.S. in coronavirus research and drug development, similar to the country’s efforts in a number of sectors.

“Rather than innovate themselves, they are trying to essentially jump to the front of the line by stealing information from others,” Wray testified. 

The FBI director’s comments come months after the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that Chinese government-backed hackers were targeting U.S. groups involved in research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

Russia and Iran have also been seen targeting companies involved in COVID-19 research. 

Read more here.

RUSSIAN-LINKED ACCOUNTS TAKEN DOWN: Facebook on Thursday announced it has removed three networks consisting of hundreds of accounts, pages and groups tied to Russian malign influence efforts, including accounts with ties to past efforts by the Russian government to target U.S. elections.

One of the networks included 214 Facebook accounts, 35 pages, 18 groups and 34 Instagram accounts. It was removed for violating policies against foreign or government interference, with Facebook announcing the networks had posed as journalists or credible news sources in an effort to spread Russian narratives. 

The accounts, pages and groups originated in Russia and primarily targeted Syria and Ukraine along with several other countries including the United States. The actors behind the accounts posted in a variety of languages on news and current events, including U.S. politics, the Syrian civil war and the war in Ukraine. 

“They used fake accounts to create elaborate fictitious personas across many internet services, posing as journalists to contact news organizations, purporting to be locals in countries they targeted, and managing Groups and Pages, some of which proclaimed to be hacktivist groups,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Security Policy at Facebook, wrote in a blog post Thursday.

“These clusters also focused on driving people to their off-platform sites and other social media platforms where, among other themes, they promoted content related to past alleged leaks of compromising information,” he added.

“The operation had almost no following on our platforms when we removed it.”

Gleicher noted that the networks removed were tied to Russian actors involved in hack-and-leak efforts around the 2016 elections, an issue that Facebook is particularly focused on headed into November. 

Read more here. 

MORE TIKTOK DRAMA: A district court judge on Thursday said that the Trump administration must either delay a ban on TikTok from American app stores or file legal papers defending the move by Friday afternoon.

The Commerce Department last week issued an order banning app stores from letting users download the short-form video app which was set to go into effect this past Sunday before it was pushed back one week.

TikTok filed for an injunction to halt the app store ban on Wednesday. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Carl Nichols said the government must file a response to the request or delay the order by 2:30 p.m. EDT on Friday.

The Commerce order was the result of an executive order signed by President Trump last month targeting TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese-based ByteDance, and Tencent’s WeChat messaging app.

The ban on TikTok was pushed back a week by the Commerce Department after the tentative approval of a deal to address the national security concerns raised in Trump’s order.

The deal, submitted to the Treasury Department for approval, would see a new American company called TikTok Global be formed that will own most of the social media app’s worldwide operations.

Friction over the ownership structure of that company threatens to derail the deal despite the approval in principle. ByteDance claims it will own 80 percent of TikTok Global, while Oracle claims the Chinese company will play no part.

Read more here.

INVESTIGATE THE IRS: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Thursday urged the Treasury Department watchdog to investigate the IRS criminal investigation division’s use, without a court order, of a commercial database containing location data from Americans’ cellphones.

“The IRS is not above the law and the agency’s lawyers should never provide IRS-CI investigators with permission to bypass the courts and engage in warrantless surveillance of Americans,” the senators wrote in a letter to Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George.

The IRS in 2017 and 2018 purchased a subscription to a database offered by a government contractor called Venntel that included location data collected from millions of cellphones. IRS criminal investigations officials confirmed the purchase of the subscription and use of the product to Wyden’s office in June.

According to the letter, the IRS officials confirmed that they searched the database for information that had been collected from Americans’ phones without a court order. They said that doing so was approved by the agency’s lawyers.

The senators, however, said that the IRS has ignored follow-up requests for documents detailing the agency’s legal reasoning.

Wyden and Warren asked George for an investigation on the criminal investigation division’s “use of commercial databases containing Americans’ information, including but not limited to Venntel’s location database.”

Read more here. 

MORE REGULATION, PLEASE: Six in 10 Americans support the government taking more steps to regulate online platforms, according to a new poll released by Consumer Reports.

The survey, released Thursday, is the latest sign of U.S. consumers becoming more critical of Silicon Valley over the past few years, and at a time when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are ramping up calls for more regulation.

For consumers, privacy has been a major concern in recent years, especially since the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal and its effect on the presidential election.

An overwhelming 85 percent of respondents said they were concerned by the amount of data online platforms store about them, and 81 percent expressed concern that platforms are holding that data to build out consumer profiles.

“The collection of personal data, too often without the permission or even awareness of the user, and the inability of these companies to take responsibility for content that is shared on their platforms, raises serious ethical questions about these platforms,” Consumer Reports policy analyst Laurel Lehman said in a statement.

The release of the survey results come as multiple investigations into the country’s biggest technology companies are coming to a close. Many of those investigations, led both by regulators and lawmakers, focus on competition concerns in the digital marketplace.

Read more here. 

YOUTUBE JOINS THE BATTLE: YouTube announced new measures Thursday to curb misinformation on its platform, including those campaigns targeting mail-in voting.

The measures include changes to search results for congressional and presidential candidates, adding informative panels about candidates before displaying video search results, according to a press release.

“As we approach November 3, we’re working hard to make YouTube a more reliable source for news and information, as well as an open platform for healthy political discourse,” said Leslie Miller, YouTube’s VP of government affairs and public policy.

Beginning Thursday, videos on the subject of mail-in voting will include an info panel under the video directing users to a report from the think tank Bipartisan Policy Center.

Read more here. 

HOOTSUITE REVERSES COURSE: The social media management platform Hootsuite said Thursday it will no longer do business with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after an employee tweeted that the company signed a three-year contract with the immigration enforcement agency. 

Hootsuite CEO Tom Keiser said in a statement Thursday the contract was based on “objective guidelines” but that the backlash “spurred additional dialogue.”

“We have heard the lived experiences from our people and the hurt they are feeling. The decision has created a divided company, and this is not the kind of company I came to lead. I—and the rest of the management team—share concerns our people have expressed,” Keiser said.  “As a result, we have decided not to proceed with the deal with ICE.”

Read more here.

WORK FROM HOME FOREVER: Many Google staffers may never return to offices full time after parent company Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai announced a majority of staff would prefer to work remotely at least part of the week.

Pichai said 62 percent of Google employees favored returning to in-person work for part of the time when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, adding that the company would try to accommodate that preference, he told Time magazine.

“It’s always made me wonder — when I see people commuting two hours and away from their family and friends on a Friday, you realize they can’t have plans,” Pichai told Time. “So I think we could do better.”

The company shared results from an internal survey on Twitter showing that most Google staffers preferred to return to the office on some days of the week.

Read more here.

ICYMI: DEMOCRATIC SENATORS SOUND THE ALARM: Multiple Democratic senators on Wednesday sounded the alarm around foreign threats to U.S. elections, with lawmakers pressing for more information to be made public after two classified briefings from top federal officials.

“I am very deeply concerned, I think the American people need to know what we heard,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters after attending a Senate Armed Services Committee classified briefing on election security preparations.

“There is no excuse for failing to tell the American people more than they know now about the very grave threat to our election’s integrity, and I pressed them on that, and they said they were going to get back to me … and I think the threat, my impression, is really potentially shocking,” he added.

The committee was briefed by Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, and Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, on the Pentagon’s cybersecurity efforts to secure the Nov. 3 election.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview after the briefing that he believed more information should be released to the public.

“There is the protecting against the outside threat, but then there’s all the inside threats, and whether the outside threat is communicated to the American public, I’m not happy with that,” Kaine said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has come under fire by Democrats following a whistleblower allegation saying top agency officials pressured him to alter Russian intelligence findings to match President Trump’s public remarks.

Democrats also previously raised concerns after ABC News reported that DHS had withheld the publication of a bulletin from the Office of Intelligence Analysis that found evidence Russian actors were attempting to use “allegations over the poor mental health” of former Vice President Joe Biden to sway the election.

Kaine noted Wednesday that while he has “a huge amount of confidence” in the Pentagon’s efforts around election security, he does “not have the same degree of confidence in the DHS side of this operation.”

“I do think the American public hearing is often one of the best things, because we can guard,” Kaine added.

Read more here. 

Lighter click: Pig is warm 🙂

An op-ed to chew on: News media word choices halt discussion


Postal workers say they are ready for the mail-in voting surge (Recode / Jason Del Rey)

TikTok chief says Trump’s threats are crushing the app — before a ban even begins (Protocol / Issie Lapowsky)

Tesla built a network of connected cars. What happens when it goes down? (Washington Post / Faiz Siddiqui)

Tags Christopher Wray Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gary Peters Joe Biden John Ratcliffe Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Maria Cantwell Marsha Blackburn Pramila Jayapal Richard Burr Roger Wicker Ron Wyden Tim Kaine Warren Davidson William Barr
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