Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference

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The Biden administration on Thursday levied sweeping sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its involvement in the SolarWinds hack and interfering in U.S. elections, which lawmakers hailed as a positive step, but will likely serve to increase tensions between the two nations.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence chiefs returned to Capitol Hill for a second day of testifying on threats facing the nation, including cyber threats, and a group of Republican lawmakers reintroduced legislation to ban TikTok on federal devices. 

 

CYBER SANCTIONS WATCH IS OVER: The Biden administration on Thursday announced sanctions against Russia for its involvement in a recent major cyber espionage operation against the U.S., foreign influence operations around U.S. elections and other concerns.

The Biden administration's actions on Thursday:

  • Block U.S. financial institutions from purchasing bonds from Russia's Central Bank, National Wealth Fund or Ministry of Finance after June 14 and from lending funds to these institutions.
  • Expels 10 personnel from the Russian diplomatic mission in Washington, some of whom U.S. officials say are representatives of Russian intelligence services.
  • Sanctions six Russian technology companies that officials say provide support for Russian intelligence operations.
  • Sanctions 32 individuals involved in Russian efforts to influence the 2020 election.

The directive left open the possibility for the administration to expand the sanctions on Russian sovereign debt.

Blame game: U.S. intelligence agencies in January said the recent SolarWinds hack was "likely" carried out by Russian hackers but did not fully attribute it.  As part of Thursday's actions, the Biden administration issued a formal attribution naming Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) as the culprit behind what has become one of the largest cyber espionage attacks in U.S. history.

As part of the response to the malicious Russian hacking, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an alert Thursday providing details on vulnerabilities used by the Russian hackers, along with ways to further defend networks.

Read more about the administration's actions here.

What this means: The sanctions are not likely to improve the chilly relationship between the U.S. and Russia, though Biden administration officials emphasized Thursday that they were not looking to heighten tensions. 

"Our objective here is not to escalate. Our objective here is to impose costs for what we feel are unacceptable actions by the Russian government," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

Read more about the impact on U.S.-Russia relations here.

More intelligence: In addition to attributing the SolarWinds hack to Russia, administration officials said Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community assessed with "low to medium confidence" that Russia was behind bounties placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2019. 

Read more about the attribution here.

 

WORLDWIDE THREATS, PART TWO: The nation's top intelligence leaders faced sharp political questions during a House hearing on global security threats, with lawmakers as focused on rehashing issues from the Trump era as future threats.

The tone was set early when House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) opened the hearing by severely criticizing committee Democrats for steps taken against former President Trump over the past several years, and claiming intelligence officials had not testified over the past two years due to these actions. 

"The real reason Trump officials didn't want to participate is that for years the committee's Democrats hijacked our open hearings to advance their conspiracy theories that the Trump administration was filled with Russian agents who colluded with Putin to hack the 2016 elections," Nunes said.

Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stressed by comparison in his opening remarks that it was "important to speak truth to power," even if "intelligence assessments prove politically inconvenient."

A key issue were concerns around both Russian and Chinese malicious cyber activity against the U.S., particularly as the hearing was held the same day the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russia in retaliation for the SolarWinds hack and Russian election interference.

Read more about the hearing here.

 

HAWLEY TAKES AIM AT TIKTOK: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) led a group of Senate Republicans on Thursday in reintroducing legislation to ban the use of social media app TikTok on federal government devices, citing potential national security concerns. 

The No TikTok on Government Devices Act would ban all federal employees from using the popular app on government devices. The legislation was previously introduced in 2020, and was unanimously passed by the Senate in August, but the bill never received a vote in the House.  

"TikTok is a Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party that has no place on government devices-or any American devices, for that matter," Hawley said in a statement Thursday. 

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) are co-sponsors of the legislation. The bill was also reintroduced in the House by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who said in a separate statement that the legislation "is in the best interest of our national security."

Read more about the legislation here. 

 

'KIDFLUENCER' CONCERNS: Facebook's plans to create an Instagram for kids are fueling new calls to crack down on digital advertising targeting children.

Experts say that while YouTube has largely been the main vehicle for influencer marketing aimed at children, with videos from so-called kidfluencers garnering millions of views, plans for a kid-centered Instagram platform are sparking backlash from lawmakers and advocates who view influencer marketing as a deceptive tactic to reach kids.

No kid zone: The CCFC, along with roughly 99 other advocacy organizations and experts, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday urging the platform to cancel plans for an Instagram for kids.

Democrats say they plan to reintroduce the KIDS Act, which would further regulate digital advertising for children, and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Conn.) expressed hope for bipartisan support on the effort.

Read more here

 

SECTION 230 ON THE MIND: Republican staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee circulated a memo Thursday morning outlining legislative concepts aimed at reining in some of the power of the largest tech companies in the U.S. 

The legislative concepts outlined in the memo largely target content moderation practices and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial law that provides a liability shield for tech platforms for third-party content posted on their sites. 

The memo lays out a legislative concept to modify Section 230 to "only provide liability protection for moderation of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment or specifically listed in the statute" and to remove the liability protection under Section 230 for content moderation decision made by the companies that "discriminate based on political affiliation or viewpoint."

Read more about the memo

 

'STEP IT UP' ON SUSTAINABILITY: The five biggest tech companies in the U.S. have touted a wide array of sustainability initiatives, but critics say the companies fall short where it matters - lobbying. 

Despite the financial success of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, environmental advocacy groups say the tech giants are not putting enough financial support behind lobbying for pro-climate public policy.

"The individual actions that companies are taking are vital, and we need them to keep doing that and to step it up. But the most important thing that we all need is public policy that really bends the climate curve," Bill Weihl, executive director of ClimateVoice, told The Hill.

Read more here

 

ICYMI - ANTITRUST BLUEPRINT APPROVED: The House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday night formally approved a report on monopoly power in digital marketplaces.

The over 400-page document depicting ways that Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook allegedly abuse their market power was approved on a 24-17 party-line vote.

The report was released in October by Democrats on the committee but was the result of a bipartisan investigation, and some Republicans have signaled support for antitrust initiatives drawing on the report. Democrats on the committee are now expected to move forward with legislation.

Read more.

 

An op-ed to chew on: Digital divides could disconnect the world

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

For Big Tech whistleblowers, there's no such thing as 'moving on' (Protocol / Issie Lapowsky) 

Amazon's warehouse boom linked to health hazards in America's most polluted region (The Guardian / Sam Levin)

Google Contract Workers In Pittsburgh Formed A Union Over A Year Ago. They Still Don't Have A Labor Contract (WESA / An-Li Herring)

A federal 'revenge porn' ban could transform online harassment laws (The Verge / Adi Robertson)

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