Archive for the ‘Cybersecurity and Data Protection’ Category

Report linking Labour leak to Russia reveals weakness of UK electoral system

LONDON — Did Russia try to meddle in the upcoming election in the United Kingdom?

That’s the suggestion after Graphika, a social media analytics firm, published a report Monday that linked a recent leak of trade talks between London and Washington to tactics used by an established Russian disinformation operation.

The leak — that showed notes from discussions between U.S. and British officials about a potential free-trade agreement after the U.K. leaves the European Union — bears a close resemblance to “Secondary Infektion,” a Kremlin-backed online operation, according to security expert Ben Nimmo, who wrote the analysis.

“The similarities are too close for it to be a coincidence,” Nimmo said. “The big question is how did internal U.K. government documents end up on social media accounts as part of a possible disinformation campaign?”

The leak fueled division across the U.K. about whether the current ruling Conservatives would seek to privatize the country’s much-loved NHS — a key attack line of the opposition Labour party, which Boris Johnson’s government has vehemently denied. Whoever was behind the recent leak used the same combination of websites and burner accounts with matching names previously used by Russia.


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That included posting the documents on the social network Reddit and then peppering both U.K. politicians and journalists with emails and tweets to drum up interest in the leaks.

Nimmo, a former analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank who worked closely with Facebook on a series on investigations to highlight foreign disinformation campaigns, said it would almost be impossible to attribute the recent leak directly to Russia. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking on ITV’s This Morning program, did not reveal where his party had obtained the documents but claimed no U.K. government minister had questioned the accuracy of the contents.

Whatever their origin, the documents again highlight an issue that has concerned many security officials for years, namely that the U.K. election remains susceptible to disinformation attempts — either by foreign actors or domestic groups — and it is very difficult to stop them.

The goal of such disinformation campaigns, according to experts, is not to back one side or the other. Instead, foreign actors are seeking to sow division based on hot-button issues like Brexit or immigration, hoping to build on existing U.K. concerns to weaken the country for their own gain.

“Frankly, if I was, you know, working in the Kremlin or the Lubyanka, it’s exactly the kind of thing I would want to see pushed if we had managed to hack it,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “It strikes at a very emotive issue for the British public, it creates tensions between the U.K. and the U.S. It fits in with an overall strategy of causing mischief.”

As time ticks down to the nationwide vote next Thursday, much attention has focused on Facebook, the world’s largest social network where all political groups have flooded users with partisan messages to woo would-be supporters.

In response, the company has created a London-based unit to respond to potential threats, though in a call with reporters last month, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said that so far, his team had yet to detect foreign interference activities across the company’s services in the U.K.

Such reassurances, though, have not calmed British officials, many of whom called for a significant upgrade to the country’s campaign rules to stop potential foreign actors from interfering in U.K. elections.

Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said basic updates — like forcing anyone buying political ads on social media to declare who was funding such messages — would reduce much of the threat, from foreign actors or from domestic groups seeking to sow dissent.

She added that other areas, notably the ability for anyone to give less than £500 to a political party without having to declare the donation, were also ripe for potential abuse, particularly if foreign groups wanted to back one side in the upcoming election.

“A lot of this comes down to political parties being aware where the money comes from,” she said. “The latest technology makes it difficult to know where such payments come from.”

With a little over a week to go until the election, the U.K.’s security agencies, social media giants and research groups will be scouring the online world to determine if Russia or other foreign groups are meddling with messages to sway British voters.

Online tactics — such as buying Facebook political ads without disclosing who bought them, hijacking popular Twitter hashtags to promote partisan messages, and using pseudo-news sites, often solely created to support one political party, to convince voters to back one side — make it difficult to determine how much disinformation comes from foreign actors.

“The key challenge is attribution,” said Teija Tiilikainen, head of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, an EU-NATO unit created to tackle foreign influence for member countries. “Many times, it’s not easy to tell who’s behind campaigns. It makes it hard to call out bad actors.”

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European Parliament confirms von der Leyen Commission

STRASBOURG — The Ursula von der Leyen Commission is ready to roll.

The European Parliament on Wednesday voted to approve von der Leyen, the first woman to serve in the EU’s top executive post, and her team of 15 men and 11 women — the closest the EU has ever come to a gender-balanced College of Commissioners. They take office this Sunday, December 1.

The new Commission was approved with 461 votes in favor, 157 against and 89 abstentions. The new Commission will take over a month later than planned, after the Parliament rejected the original nominees from France, Hungary and Romania.

In a plenary debate prior to the vote, von der Leyen reiterated her main policy priorities, including an ambitious plan to fight climate change with a European Green Deal, an aggressive focus on digitalization and tech issues, and fresh drives to strengthen EU cooperation on economic and financial policies, and to step up foreign policy initiatives.

“Climate change is about all of us,” von der Leyen said, in a line that was emblematic of the aspirations and resolve she expressed throughout her speech. “We have the duty to act and the power to lead.”

The Parliament voted to install the Commission without a British representative after the U.K. government refused to send a nominee, citing Brexit and a general practice of not making international appointments during a general election campaign.

The absence of a British commissioner has raised the possibility that some Commission decisions could face legal challenges. But EU lawyers have expressed confidence that they have taken all necessary steps to avoid such challenges succeeding, including by initiating a disciplinary procedure against the U.K. for violating EU law.

Many of the abstentions on Wednesday were from the Greens group, which pointedly declared it would not support the new Commission or align with mainstream parties, and intended to continue functioning as an insurgent force despite the new executive’s focus on climate change.

In her opening speech asking the Parliament to approve her Commission, von der Leyen noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and quoted the Czech statesman Václav Havel, saying: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

“I choose this quote because over the next five years, our Union will embark together on a transformation, which will touch every part of our society and economy,” von der Leyen told the Parliament. “And we will do it because it is the right thing to do. Not because it will be easy.”

She thanked outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker, but also said that his Commission had often been forced into a defensive position of emergency response.

“In the last years, we had to focus on the here-and-now, managing crisis after emergency, fighting to keep our unity and solidarity intact,” she said, noting that the EU had often been at its best when pushing bold initiatives such as the creation of the euro, the common currency.

Von der Leyen insisted that the EU could be a bulwark of stability in an increasingly turbulent era.

“This is an unsettled world, where too many powers only speak the language of confrontation and unilateralism,” she said. “But it is also a world where millions of people are taking to the streets — to protest against corruption or to demand democratic change. The world needs our leadership more than ever. To keep engaging with the world as a responsible power. To be a force for peace and for positive change. We must show our partners at the United Nations they can rely on us, as a champion of multilateralism.”

In the vote, von der Leyen had broad support from the three biggest mainstream pro-EU political groups — her center-right European People’s Party, the center-left Socialists & Democrats, and the liberal-centrist Renew Europe. Although they abstained, the Greens said they would remain open to allying with von der Leyen and other groups on a case-by-case basis.

The Greens’ stance underscored the continuing difficulties von der Leyen is likely to face as she tries to cobble together majorities in Parliament for her legislative initiatives.

While the three largest groups voted to install the Commission, they have not clinched a coalition agreement and they disagree on many points across the various important legislative files. Longtime EU insiders predicated that it would be tough going for the new College.

This article has been updated.

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