Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill’s newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.
Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) and Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills).
BARR ON BIG TECH: Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Barr threatens tech’s prized legal shield If Roger Stone were a narco, he’d be in the clear MORE is threatening the legal shield that prevents internet companies such as Facebook and Google from facing lawsuits over the extreme, exploitative and sometimes violent posts that circulate on their powerful platforms.
At a Department of Justice (DOJ) workshop devoted to the issue Wednesday, Barr warned that the largest technology firms have hidden behind the 1996 statute to avoid responsibility for “selling illegal and faulty products, connecting terrorists [and] facilitating child sexual exploitation.”
Barr’s comments bolstered the DOJ’s escalating battle against Big Tech. Law enforcement officials have accused the tech titans of obstructing criminal investigations and amassing too much power over the past decade. The DOJ is currently investigating the largest tech firms for antitrust concerns – and Barr said the department’s interest in Section 230 grew out of that probe.
“Online services … have evoked [legal] immunity even where they solicited or encouraged unlawful conduct, shared in illegal proceeds or helped perpetrators hide from law enforcement,” Barr said, placing blame both on the law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — as well as the courts, which have interpreted it broadly in the more than 20 years since it was passed.
Barr delivered the broadside at a DOJ conference about Section 230 that featured some of the law’s most aggressive proponents and detractors. The workshop’s trio of panels featured civil rights activists who argued the law goes too far in protecting the tech companies, lawyers who have represented those companies in court, and experts who have spent years sifting through the law’s far-reaching implications and agree that legislative tweaks are inevitable.
Read more here.
SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING: Attorney General William Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray and multiple other senior administration officials urged the public to be vigilant for threats to elections on Wednesday, while noting there was so far no evidence of foreign election interference ahead of Election Day in November.
In an op-ed in USA Today, they advocated for a “whole-of-society” approach to combating foreign election interference, but emphasized that “we have yet to identify any activity designed to prevent voting or change votes.”
The officials — Barr, Wray, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfFederal officials pen op-ed urging public to be vigilant of election interference efforts Trump pledges federal support for Los Angeles in hosting 2028 Olympics Top Democrats demand answers on DHS plans to deploy elite agents to sanctuary cities MORE, Director of National Intelligence Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireFederal officials pen op-ed urging public to be vigilant of election interference efforts Top intelligence community lawyer leaving position Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE, and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs — noted that they would “remain watchful of any malicious activities from cybercriminals and from foreign actors like Russia, China and Iran.”
Despite the lack of evidence of current threats to the 2020 vote, the agency leaders called on the public to assist in identifying foreign interference, including through “seeking trustworthy sources of information” on elections to avoid disinformation campaigns, and through engaging with state and local election officials to learn more about the secure voting process.
They also encouraged campaigns, technology companies and election officials to report any signs of hacking or other suspicious online activity around elections to the FBI and to CISA.
Read more here.
DOJ BACKS ORACLE: The Trump administration is siding with software company Oracle over Google in the pivotal Supreme Court battle that has pitted the U.S. government against some of the top titans of the tech industry.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) in a filing on Wednesday urged the high court to rule in favor of Oracle in the case that Google once referred to as the “copyright case of the decade.” The DOJ is arguing that Google flouted copyright law when the tech giant copied 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code over ten years ago.
The Trump administration’s stance could have far-reaching consequences as the high court weighs the outer limits of copyright law in the digital age.
Google vs. Oracle centers on a question that has eluded Silicon Valley for over a decade: if it is possible to copyright application-programming interfaces (APIs), computer code that allows software products to communicate with one another.
Google, backed by a broad swath of the tech industry, has argued that software developers and innovators rely on open APIs in order to create products that work together and build on one another. But Oracle, in a case that has bounced through lower courts for over ten years, has alleged that Google exploitatively stole its code while building the Android, which is today the world’s most popular operating system.
The Trump administration, including U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Joseph Hunt, the assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s civil division, argued that “computer programs are copyrightable” and Oracle “holds a valid copyright” over the code in question.
“[Google’s] policy arguments are unpersuasive,” the filing reads. “Petitioner has not identified any industry understanding that software ‘interfaces’ are per se uncopyrightable, and concerns about the interaction of copyright and emerging technology do not justify such an atextual rule.”
Read more here.
THAT DOESN’T SOUND GOOD: A senior election official in Kentucky said Tuesday that the state’s election systems are “routinely” scanned by foreign adversaries, and begged for the continued allocation of funds to help combat cyber threats.
“We are routinely scanned by Venezuela, by North Korea, by Russia on a regular basis,” Kentucky Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing testified before a Kentucky House budget subcommittee, according to The Courier Journal.
“This is not something that is in the past, that happened in 2016,” Dearing added. “It happens on a weekly basis.”
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Ben Self said in a statement following Dearing’s remarks that it was “extremely alarming” to hear about potential Russian interference in Kentucky elections.
“With this new information, it’s clear we need stronger laws cracking down on foreign election interference,” Self added.
Dearing heads the staff that runs the state’s Board of Elections, which is helmed by Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R).
Dearing appeared before the House Budget subcommittee on General Government to discuss funding for the upcoming two fiscal years. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) recommended that the Board of Elections be given around $6.2 million for the 2021 fiscal year, which will include the 2020 elections, but decreased the amount to around $3.4 million for 2022.
Read more here.
AN OLYMPIC-LEVEL THREAT: Russia, China and North Korea will pose the biggest cyber threats to the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, a report released Wednesday found.
The Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA) – which is comprised of major global cybersecurity companies including McAfee, Cisco, and Palo Alto Networks – detailed the cyber threats that would likely face the upcoming Olympic Games, due to take place in July and August, in its new report.
CTA wrote that the three countries posed threats due to geopolitical tensions with Japan and based on previous track records of cyberattacks.
“Japan is at the center of several regional conflicts, and its role as Olympics host is likely to make the country a high-priority target for longtime adversaries looking to embarrass Tokyo on the international stage,” CTA wrote.
Potential methods of attack the countries might use include disinformation campaigns on social media, disrupting critical systems key to Olympics events and targeted data leaks.
WiFi networks, ticketing systems, and anti-doping organizations were judged by CTA to be most at-risk from these types of cyberattacks, along with Japanese officials, partner governments, and sponsors of the Olympics.
Read more here.
A EUROPEAN APPROACH TO DATA: The European Union on Wednesday outlined the body’s digital strategy and recommendations for regulating artificial intelligence and facial recognition.
“Today we are presenting our ambition to shape Europe’s digital future,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the body’s executive commission, said in a statement.
“It covers everything from cybersecurity to critical infrastructures, digital education to skills, democracy to media. I want that digital Europe reflects the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic, and confident.”
The digital strategy focuses on making Europe a leader in the data economy.
In a 35-page-long document, the European Commission discusses creating a “European Data Space,” a shared data market between member nations with improved transparency.
The Commission will propose a framework for data, which it says will emphasize sharing and personal data protection.
Read more here.
WE HAVE SOME QUESTIONS: A House subcommittee is asking Amazon’s home security outfit Ring for information about its partnerships with city governments and local police departments as well as its data protection policy.
Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHouse subcommittee requests information from Ring about cooperation with police, local governments Lawmakers with first-hand experience using food stamps call on Trump not to cut program Hillicon Valley: Twitter to let users report election misinformation | Dem offers updates to child privacy rules | ACLU pushes back on Puerto Rico online voting proposal MORE (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, expressed concerns in a letter to Amazon about reports that Ring cooperates with the local entities to promote its surveillance tools and has agreements with some cities to provide discounts on their products to residents in exchange for city subsidies. He also said he was alarmed by reports that Ring “tightly controls” what is said about them in public and mandates prior approval of any statement.
“The Subcommittee is seeking more information regarding why cities and law enforcement agencies enter into these agreements,” Krishnamoorthi wrote.
“The answer appears to be that Ring gives them access to a much wider system of surveillance than they could build themselves, and Ring allows law enforcement access to a network of surveillance cameras on private property without the expense to taxpayers of having to purchase, install, and monitor those cameras,” he added.
Krishnamoorthi specifically cited a Vice report from August which said that cities and towns across the country are using taxpayer dollars to subsidize a discount for Ring’s products. He also cited a report from The Guardian saying Ring uses its partnerships to help shape the public narrative around the company.
Read more here.
NOT SO FAST, KIDS: TikTok introduced new features on Wednesday giving parents more control over how their children use the popular short-form video platform.
With the new “Family Safety Mode,” parents will be able to control how long users spend on the app, limit their ability to send and receive mentions and restrict content.
The goal of the new mode is to promote the well-being of users, which “means having a healthy relationship with online apps and services,” TikTok’s Cormac Keenan wrote in a blog post.
The feature is available in the United Kingdom now and will be rolled out elsewhere “in the coming weeks,” according to the company.
The changes come as TikTok’s popularity, especially among children and teens, continues to skyrocket globally.
The app has been downloaded well over 100 million times in the U.S., and as it grows so has the scrutiny it has drawn, especially regarding how it deals with minors on the platform.
Read more here.
DO THE CYBER: The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is warning of potential cyber threats to companies operating critical systems this week, with the alert coming on the heels of a cyberattack last year on a pipeline operator.
In the alert released Tuesday, CISA detailed its response to a recent ransomware attack on an unnamed “natural gas compression facility.” The ransomware virus came from a malicious link in an email, which was then able to compromise the company’s systems.
CISA wrote that the facility, which never lost control of operations but did have difficulty interpreting network data, decided to temporarily shut down operations and that the group had not considered a cyberattack when formulating its emergency response plans.
The attack also disrupted operations at nearby critical systems operators, which meant that the entire pipeline involved was shut down for two days.
CISA strongly recommended that operators of similar critical systems create a plan for what to do in the case of a debilitating cyberattack that affects operations and that cybersecurity be incorporated into safety training plans for employees due to the potential that cyberattacks on these facilities could cause physical harm.
Cybersecurity group Dragos issued an assessment on Wednesday linking the attack on the facility to an alert put out by the U.S. Coast Guard in December.
Read more here.
FAKE NEWS CONCERNS: A study by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows that more than 80 percent of respondents are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the impact of “made-up news” reported on the 2020 presidential election.
The new data from the Pew Research Center’s Election News Pathways Project finds that 82 percent of respondents are concerned about made-up news and its impact, with 48 percent being “very concerned” and 34 percent being “somewhat concerned.”
“Concern is highest among people who follow political news most closely, older adults and those who display more knowledge about politics in general,” the study reads. “The least concerned are those who don’t follow political news closely at all, people with the least knowledge about political affairs and the youngest adults.”
Only one-third of those aged 18 to 29 say the impact of fake news concerns them, with the number jumping to 43 percent among those 30 to 49 and up to 64 percent for those 65 and older.
“The less one follows political news, the less concerned one is about the influence of made-up news,” the study concludes.
Read more here.
A LIGHTER CLICK: Think before you speak
AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Three ways hackers can help protect our national cyber infrastructure
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
Twitter may have helped Vox executives steal the Twitter account of a sports blogger (Motherboard / Laura Wagner)
How Nevada Democrats hope to avoid Iowa’s tech errors (NPR / Miles Parks)
Hackers are taking advantage of Giuliani Twitter typos to send followers to malicious websites (CNET / Alfred Ng)
How Saudi Arabia infiltrated Twitter (Buzzfeed News / Alex Kantrowitz)