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America’s cyberwar plans for Russia might be leaning too hard on direct messages

America’s cyberwar plans for Russia might be leaning too hard on direct messages


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One of Facebook’s key talking points over the past year, as it faces more pressure to act in the face foreign interference in elections, is that it can’t do the job alone. The government is best positioned to fight foreign threats, it has argued. And for various reasons, many of which are political, the government to date has not seemed to be fighting very hard.

Today, however, the United States Cyber Command disclosed its first known foreign operation designed to protect the integrity of our elections. And the linchpin of this operation, aimed at Russian operatives, is ... sending them direct messages.

Julian E. Barnes has the story in the New York Times:

Defense officials would not say how many individuals they were targeting, and they would not describe the methods that Cyber Command has used to send the direct messages to the operatives behind the influence campaigns. It is not clear if the information was delivered in an email, a chat or some other electronic intervention.

Senior defense officials said they were not directly threatening the operatives. Still, former officials said anyone singled out would know, based on the United States government’s actions against other Russian operatives, that they could be indicted or targeted with sanctions. Even the unstated threat of sanctions could help deter some Russians from participating in covert disinformation campaigns, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former intelligence official now with the Center for a New American Security.

If this intervention feels rather ... gentle, there’s a reason for that, Barnes reports. The rules of cyberwar are unsettled, and US officials worry that more aggressive measures could trigger a series of quick escalations from the Russians.

Still, the cyberwar is happening. On one hand, multiple reports say that Russia is unlikely to target our election infrastructure, such as voting machines. On the other, the Justice Department indicted a Russian national named Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova for allegedly conducting a multimillion-dollar campaign of information warfare that played out across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

And so the world’s most powerful military has elected to respond in kind, with strongly worded DMs. We don’t know what those messages said, or to whom exactly they were targeted. While I can imagine a Russian troll farm worker receiving such a message and recoiling in terror, I can also imagine him sharing it in the Internet Research Agency’s private Slack, where he and his co-workers could whoop it up.

So, points for effort. But not too many points. A DM can be a powerful thing. But it’s unclear that it will make a particularly good weapon.


Government bans phrase ‘fake news’ 

The United Kingdom has banned the term “fake news” after urging ministers to use “misinformation” or “disinformation” instead, Margi Murphy reports:

The phrase — a favourite of US President Donald Trump — will no longer appear in policy documents or official papers because it is “a poorly-defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes,” officials said.

While ministers may speak freely in the House of Commons, any strategy documents referring to election meddling or internet safety will need to use the new definition. 

Removing a spam network from Facebook in the Philippines

Facebook played an important role in the right of right-wing authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte, and he remains extremely popular in the Philippines. Facebook found a network of pages with a combined 4.8 million followers that used political clickbait to drive people to “advertising click farms.” Many of the pages had “Duterte” in their names.

As part of our ongoing efforts to protect our services from abuse, we have removed a network of 95 Pages and 39 accounts on Facebook in the Philippines for violating our spam and authenticity policies by encouraging people to visit low quality websites that contain little substantive content and are full of disruptive ads.

These Pages ranged from political to entertainment content, but all were sharing links to the same advertising click farms off Facebook.

Removing Spam and Inauthentic Activity from Facebook in Brazil

On the same day as the Philippines bust, Facebook reported a similar spam network in Brazil:

Today, as part of our ongoing efforts to protect our community from this type of abuse, Facebook removed 68 Pages and 43 accounts associated with a Brazilian marketing group, Raposo Fernandes Associados (RFA), for violating our misrepresentation and spam policies.

The people behind RFA created Pages using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names, which violates our Community Standards. They then used those Pages to post massive amounts of clickbait intended to direct people to websites that are entirely separate from Facebook and appear legitimate, but are actually ad farms. Our decision to remove these Pages was based on the behavior of these actors – including using fake accounts and repeatedly posting spam – rather than on the type of content they were posting. This behavior was detected on Facebook but, as yet, we have not found similar misuse on Instagram or WhatsApp.

Tech lobby outlines its own set of privacy regulations

The big tech lobbying group, which is terrified of a recently passed California privacy law, shared more details about its proposal for a watered-down national privacy bill, David McCabe reports:

It suggests that consumers should have to opt in to the use of their sensitive data, which it defines as “personal data consisting of ethnic origin, political affiliation, religious or philosophical belief, trade union membership, genetic data, biometric data, health data, sexual orientation, certain data of known minors, and precise geolocation data,“ except in cases where “such use is necessary based on the context or otherwise permitted under applicable law.”

The restriction wouldn’t apply to data that used an artificial identifier and was protected or that was fully anonymous. Garfield said he hopes that would push the industry to make such anonymization a standard practice.

Twitter bans more InfoWars accounts

Twitter found more than a dozen accounts affiliated with Alex Jones and InfoWars and removed them from the platform on Monday, Oliver Darcy and Rob McClean report. All told Twitter has removed 23 accounts related to InfoWars:

The spokesperson said the company permanently suspended 18 accounts, in part, for attempting to help InfoWars and its founder, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, circumvent the ban Twitter placed on them in September by posting material related to the media organization. The Twitter spokesperson added to CNN that the 18 suspensions came after “numerous violations and warnings.”

Immigrant Recruits Are Having Their “Loyalty” Questioned For Following Lawsuits Against The Pentagon

Vera Bergengruen has the tale of how some immigrant recruits to the US military joined a Facebook group in which they could explore their legal options to become naturalized citizens and voice criticism about the process. Many of them have found that their citizenship applications have been held up as a result.

Now, many of them fear they’re being retaliated against for expressing interest in their legal options or voicing their frustration at the Defense Department’s shifting rules, which require thorough reviews of personal finances, travel and family connections, as well as FBI and CIA screenings and interviews.

It is in these counterintelligence interviews — which are meant to screen whether a foreign-born recruit presents a national security threat, such as having ties to terrorist groups or foreign intelligence agencies — that interest in their legal options has been flagged as a risk.

We’re Tracking Misinformation About The Migrant Caravan Headed To The US

Jane Lytvynenko and Hayes Brown are rounding up some of the viral misinformation that is being spread about a group of 7,000 people seeking refugee status in the United States. It’s become a major talking point for Republicans in the days leading up to the midterms.

The idea that terrorists are using the southern border to enter the US is not new. This myth has been perpetrated by politicians, commentators, and memes for years, but it’s not accurate.

A 2017 Department of State report says, “At year’s end there was no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”

Amazon Pushes ICE to Buy Its Face Recognition Surveillance Tech

Even as some Amazon employees agitate against a potential collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Amazon has been pursuing the deal, report Jake Laperruque and Andrea Peterson:

Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met with Amazon this summer and the corporate giant pitched the government agency on its controversial technology that can identify people in real time by scanning faces in a video feed, documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight show.

Arming ICE with real-time facial recognition surveillance technology could supercharge the agency’s enforcement power, and make undocumented immigrants afraid to seek out vital services in places where cameras could be located. During this administration, ICE agents have targeted immigrants trying to enter and leave medical facilities and houses of worship despite an official policy that discourages apprehensions at “sensitive locations.” With facial recognition surveillance technology, ICE could automate and surreptitiously surveil these and other public locations permanently by setting up video cameras and linking them to Amazon’s software.


Amazon exec and Super Micro CEO call for retraction of spy chip story

Top executives from Amazon and server manufacturer Super Micro have followed Apple CEO Tim Cook in calling Bloomberg to retract its explosive story about the server hack that let Chinese spies infiltrate US tech companies.

PiperJaffray surveys teens about social media

And it’s a mixed bag for Facebook:

Instagram is now above Snapchat as the most used social platform by teens (85% use at least once per month). Core Facebook, however, continues to exhibit declining engagement among the teen demographic; only 28% of 15 year olds use Facebook, down from >40% in Fall-16.

Lawsuits Over Paparazzi Images on Instagram Raise Celebrity Questions Over Right of Publicity

Gigi Hadid posted a paparazzi photo of herself on Instagram and is now facing legal action, presumably for copyright violation. The Fashion Law explores how this and other cases of paparazzi photos on Instagram find copyright law intersecting with celebrities’ right to publicity. It’s unclear who’s in the right:

Putting copyright law aside, there is a larger question at issue: at what point does a celebrity’s right to control how others’ profit from his/her likeness extend to paparazzi photos? In other words, is there a right of publicity case to be made against photo agencies/paparazzi more generally?

The right of publicity is a state-specific legal doctrine developed to give individuals the ability to prevent others from commercially exploiting their names and/or likenesses without permission. In accordance with this doctrine, celebrities have grounds to take action when their names, images, likenesses, etc. are used for commercial purposes. This is precisely what actress Katherine Heigl did in 2014 when New York-based drug store chain Duane Reade used an image of her leaving one of its stores in an advertisement.

When YouTube went dark

YouTube going down last week had two immediate effects, Sara Fischer reports, citing new data from Chartbeat. People read more news, and they especially read more news about YouTube going down.

Chartbeat analyzed the YouTube outage using global traffic data across a sample of more than 4,000 sites which are Chartbeat customers.

What they found: About half of the increased traffic (11%) went to general articles on publisher sites, and the other half (9%) went to articles about the YouTube outage.


Facebook is rolling out a redesigned Messenger focused on simplicity

I spent a week with the new Facebook Messenger and found it a step in the right direction:

Facebook is releasing a redesigned version of Messenger today that attempts to put the focus back on your chats. After years of revenue-focused expansion into bots, games, payments, and other distractions, the company is bringing Messenger back to basics. While all those extra widgets are still present in the app, they’ve mostly been hidden away in spots where you can safely ignore them. The new Messenger still promotes its business objectives throughout the app, but on the whole it’s a welcome return to a time when the app was first and foremost a lightweight utility.

Making Advertising Transparent

Facebook introduced a tool called the Ad Archive Report, which lets you search and sort big advertisers by how much they spent and how many ads they bought. Researchers and others can also apply for API access to enable more specialized data collection.

Apple iPhone XR review: better than good enough

The last of the new iPhones this year, and maybe the one that most people are going to buy, has arrived. (I have an iPhone X and am planning to skip upgrading for the first time since I joined The Verge in 2013.)

YouTube is investing $20M in educational content, creators

YouTube will spend $20 million on non-radicalizing, non-hoax educational content.

Malik Ducard, global head of learning, announced the initiative today. Channels like TED-Ed, dedicated to educational Ted Talks, and Hank and John Green’s Crash Course have already secured additional funding, according to YouTube’s blog post. The company plans to invest in content from independent creators, like the Green brothers, as well as traditional news sources and educational organizations to broaden its content offering. (Disclaimer: Vox Entertainment, a division of Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company, is partnering with YouTube for a YouTube Premium explainer series.)

Reddit partners with Patreon to help creators build communities

If you’re a patron of a creator who has a Reddit, you’ll now be identified as such on Reddit.


YouTube backed itself into a corner with Logan Paul and Pewdiepie

Patricia Hernandez says YouTube invited a fresh round of criticism when it agreed to release Logan Paul’s movie but not a second season of a show from fellow disgraced YouTuber PewDiePie:

It’s hard to say exactly why YouTube treated the two stars differently. Was Kjellberg’s transgression viewed more harshly internally than Logan’s, or does this signify a shift in how these infractions are judged? Regardless, YouTube is widely viewed as unpredictable in how it doles out these decisions, and has been for some time. Fans complain that YouTube can’t seem to make up its mind about what kind of company it wants to be, a sentiment that is worsened by the perception that the Paul brothers are given preferential treatment by the platform.

Your move, Bloomberg

After a thorough accounting of the controversies surrounding Bloomberg’s recent story alleging a massive hack that compromised the computer supply chain and allowed China to infiltrate US companies, Erik Wemple says the news organization is obligated to share more of its reporting.

The best journalism lends itself to reverse engineering. Though no news organization may ever match the recent New York Times investigation of Trump family finances, for instance, the newspaper published documents, cited sources and described entities with a public footprint. “Fear,” the recent book on the dysfunction of the Trump White House, starts with the story of a top official removing a trade document from the president’s desk, an account supported by an image of the purloined paper.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, gives readers virtually no road map for reproducing its scoop, which helps to explain why competitors have whiffed in their efforts to corroborate it. The relentlessness of the denials and doubts from companies and government officials obligate Bloomberg to add the sort of proof that will make believers of its skeptics. Assign more reporters to the story, re-interview sources, ask for photos and emails. Should it fail in this effort, it’ll need to retract the entire thing.

And finally ...

Y Combinator co-founder and influential startup thinker Paul Graham has discovered the scourge of algorithmic radicalization in his own home:

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