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Senate to tech companies: "time is running out"

August 1 · Issue #177 · View online
The Interface
“Time is running out.”
That was the message from Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) today at a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The subject of the hearing, which came 96 days before the midterm elections: Foreign Influence Operations and their use of Social Media Platforms.
And the day’s witnesses, which included directors and researchers from organizations including the German Marshall Fund, the Oxford Internet Institute, and New Knowledge, were in agreement: America needs a legislative solution to counter the influence campaigns now underway on social platforms.
My colleague Makena Kelly, who watched today’s hearing, captured the scope of the problem (emphasis mine):
Kelly also produced a surprising statistic: far-right and far-left bot accounts produce 25 to 30 times more posts and messages per day than standard, authentic user accounts. Committee members and panelists said that the flood of content aided in increasing the divide among the American populace with memes and posts surrounding highly emotional issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. “These types of asymmetric attacks — which include foreign operatives appearing to be Americans engaging in online public discourse – almost by design slip between the seams of our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities and responsibilities,” Warner said.
This flood of fake content is what researcher Renee DiResta, who testified today, calls “computational propaganda.” She told the committee that “addressing this asymmetric threat requires a 21st century Information Operations Doctrine, the implementation of a global real-time detection and deterrence strategy, and the cooperation of private industry, press, law enforcement, and the intelligence community.” She painted a dark picture:
The evolution of social media propaganda and influence techniques will bring serious threats. We should anticipate an increase in the misuse of less popular and less resourced social platforms, and an increase in the use of peer-to-peer messaging services. We believe that future campaigns will be compounded by the employment of witting or unwitting U.S. Persons through whom these state actors will filter their propaganda, in order to circumvent detection by social platforms and law enforcement. We should anticipate the incorporation of new technologies, such as videos and audio produced by artificial intelligence, to supplement these operations, making it increasingly difficult for citizens to trust their own eyes.
The news came on the same day that the man who has led Facebook’s security efforts, and played a key role in disclosing the current influence campaigns underway to the press yesterday, announced he would leave the company. Alex Stamos’ departure as chief security officer had been expected since earlier this year, and he’ll stay on through August 17th. But while I suspect Facebook believes Stamos has gotten perhaps more than his share of credit for the company’s cyber-security efforts, the loss still stings: Stamos had a lot of credibility with the press, who sees him a straight shooter, and he spoke about his work with an urgency and moral seriousness that were unusual for a corporate executive.
Facebook said that the dedicated security team that Stamos led would be dissolved, under the idea that it would be better to embed security engineers into every part of the organization than maintain a standalone force. A spokesman told me:
We expect to be judged on what we do to protect people’s security, not whether we have someone with a certain title. We are not naming a new CSO, since earlier this year we embedded our security engineers, analysts, investigators, and other specialists in our product and engineering teams to better address the emerging security threats we face. Alex helped us manage this transition. We will continue to evaluate what kind of structure works best as we continue to invest heavily in security to protect people on our services.
It may well be that Facebook doesn’t need a high-profile leader of its security team to protect the platform. But on a day in which top experts in the field warned us about the vast and increasing scope of the problem, it felt unsettling.
Congress will get a chance to ask about it directly. Members of the intelligence committee will meet with senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on September 5th.

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