Graphika, a cyber intelligence firm, yesterday pulled back the curtain on the online effort to target mostly British politicians, celebrities and journalists with a trove of documents appearing to detail key U.S.-U.K. trade negotiations. Graphika's report comes as the documents emerge as a key point of debate in the runup to the election. The opposition Labour Party is using classified documents initially disseminated on Reddit in October to make the case that the future of the popular state-run National Health Service is at risk under a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States.
Ben Nimmo, the director of investigations at Graphika, says the campaign identified to spread the documents “certainly resembles” a foreign influence operation. Such an operation “raises the risk” of foreign interference in the British elections, Nimmo told me in an interview.
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is running against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, garnered broad media coverage when he unveiled the documents during a debate and news conference last month. But researchers found the same documents were posted online and garnering little attention on sites like Reddit in October and early November — despite posters' best efforts to get them in front of an audience.
The trade documents were first posted on Reddit by a user called Gregoratior, who made grammatical errors similar to those made by Secondary Infektion, a disinformation campaign emerging from Russia identified by researchers earlier this year. Then a Twitter user known as @gregoratior began tweeting a Reddit post linking the document to senior U.K. politicians and media figures. The account appeared to go to great lengths to attract an audience for the documents, including tweeting at public figures such as actress Bette Midler. Twitter has since suspended the account.
The overall campaign appears to have had little success in swaying public figures to amplify the documents via social media, but it serves as a cautionary tale as the British and 2020 U.S. election loom closer. Researchers warn that public figures with large social media followings could be increasingly targeted in order to amplify controversial messaging.
“Influencers, politicians, journalists need to be aware of the fact that they are going to be personally targeted by information operations,” Nimmo told me.
Influence operations don't just throw their information “to the wind,” Nimmo said. They increasingly take a targeted approach, trying to identify people who may help amplify their message. In this instance, the actors conducting the campaign appeared to think the best targets were opposition politicians. Their tweets appeared to have an anti-Johnson and anti-conservative sentiment, Nimmo told me, and the actors largely tagged politicians challenging Johnson.
The actors also jumped around various social networks, a tactic Nimmo said is becoming more common as large tech companies including Twitter and Facebook step up their defenses. “They're trying much harder to hide,” Nimmo told me. “The recent information operation have been less effective and have had less reach than what we saw in 2016 because they know the platforms are searching for them.”
Nimmo said it wasn't immediately clear whether the actors behind the campaign were Russian or just trying to imitate previous Russian information campaigns.
“Either way, it looks like someone was trying to use leaks to influence the election debate,” Nimmo said.
The researchers also don't know how the Reddit poster initially obtained the leaked documents. Reuters, which first reported on Graphika's research, was unable to independently confirm that the documents were genuine. Labour and the British government declined to comment on the report to Reuters.
Graphika's research is surfacing as questions are mounting about whether tech companies are doing enough to identify foreign influence operations. But the operation would have been very difficult for the social media titans to detect because only a small number of accounts produced a low volume of posts, Nimmo said.
Twitter said it suspended the @gregoratior account for violating its rules against spam. “Posting spammy content is a violation of the Twitter Rules and we take aggressive enforcement action when we identify this content on our service, in line with our commitment to improving the health of the public conversation on Twitter,” Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said in a statement to The Technology 202.
Reddit said it was looking into Graphika's findings. “The integrity of our site is of paramount importance and we are investigating these findings,” Reddit spokeswoman Leigh Ann Benicewicz said in a statement. “We are always evolving our approaches to detecting malicious and coordinated activity and will continue to be open with our community and investigators on these issues.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
The Trump administration is proposing tariffs of up to 100 percent on $2.4 billion of French products, in a move to clap back against a French digital services tax it says discriminates against American tech companies, my colleagues David J. Lynch, Rachel Siegel and Terrence McCoy report.
“USTR’s decision today sends a clear signal that the United States will take action against digital tax regimes that discriminate or otherwise impose undue burdens on U.S. companies,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said in a news release.
The USTR’s proposal follows a 3 percent tax on the revenue from digital services for large companies levied by France in July. The tax would heavily hit Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. French officials have accused the American companies of paying insufficient taxes on revenue earned in France. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.).
Industry groups praised the decision.
“Today USTR is defending the Internet, which is a great American export,” said a statement from the Internet Association, an industry group representing companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google.
The proposed tariff could serve as leverage in ongoing trade negotiations with France, my colleagues report. The proposed tariff still awaits presidential approval and will be open for public comment until Jan. 6.
NIBBLES: The nation's largest dating app company allows known sex offenders to use dozens of its dating apps, including popular services such as Tinder, according to a new joint investigation by BuzzFeed, Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica. Uneven enforcement leaves millions of users vulnerable to repeat offenders using Match Group's many apps, even as the company has made promises over the past decade to crack down on such behavior.
In 10 percent of 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps over the past decade, dating apps matched users with someone who had been accused or convicted of sexual assault at least once, according to the investigation. Almost all of the victims met their male attackers through Match Group-owned Tinder, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish or Match, according to reporters. In several cases, Match-owned companies allowed users to remake their accounts even after they were accused of or convicted of raping other users.
Match introduced screening against sex offender registries after being sued in 2011 by a woman who had been raped by another user — a six-time convicted rapist. The process seems to have reduced sexual assaults for paying users, but it doesn't take that step with free Match users or Tinder, OkCupid or Plenty of Fish.
A Match Group representative said the company cannot implement a uniform screening protocol because it doesn’t collect enough information from its free users. “There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products,” the representative told BuzzFeed.
BYTES: Facebook is urging regulators to stop thinking about data like oil as it faces increased scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal's Sam Schechner and Valentina Pop report. Instead, they should “ask profound questions” about how it fits into antitrust regulation, Facebook's Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg told reporters on Monday.
“We think it is legitimate to ask profound questions about how data is held,” Clegg said, adding that officials should “relinquish themselves of the idea that [using data] is the same as using finite resources in finite, one-off ways.”
Clegg pointed to Facebook's announcement yesterday that it would allow users in the United Kingdom to port their photos directly to Google as evidence that data was a dynamic resource.
Clegg declined to comment on any specific investigations. Facebook is being investigated by both the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission in the United States as well as the European Union's European Commission.
— News from the private sector:
— News from the public sector:
Amazon workers used Cyber Monday, one of the company's busiest shopping days, to protest the well-documented harsh working conditions at its warehouses. Workers protested outside Jeff Bezos’s $80 million penthouse apartment in New York alongside members of more than half a dozen activist groups including Mijente and ALIGN.
While Amazon has over 100 warehouses around the country, New York has become an epicenter of recent protests after reports that the company's Staten Island warehouse has an injury rate three times the industry average.
ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community organizations in New York, tweeted from the protest:
Other groups encouraged shoppers to avoid Amazon because of its work supporting Immigrations and Customs Enforcement:
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also used "Cyber Monday" to draw attention to Amazon's working conditions:
— More news about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- TikTok has hired Instagram executive Trevor Johsnon to help run its European operations, Campaign reports.
Twitter was united in hating the ad, as NPR's Renee Klahr noted.
Writer Bess Kalb:
The company might have found more success on other platforms, however. The New York Times's Katie Rosman:
— Coming up
- The Open Technology Institute will host a panel on transparency reporting practices by technology companies on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy,” on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet will convene a hearing titled “The Evolution of Next-Generation Technologies: Implementing MOBILE NOW” on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) will join the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation for a bipartisan conversation about facial recognition technology on Thursday at 8:45 a.m.