At a glance.
- Different approaches to disinformation and cyberespionage during the pandemic.
- Content moderation: immediate risk as a criterion for content suppression.
- Content moderation as fact-checking.
- Update on the delusion that 5G infrastructure is implicated in COVID-19.
Canadian security authorities warn that foreign intelligence services are exploiting the pandemic.
The CBC reports that Canada's Centre for Cyber Security (a unit of the Communication Security Establishment) has issued a Cyber Threat Bulletin in which the Centre offers an overview of how cyber threats have been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bulletin is dated April 27th, but was posted only this Tuesday. Its seven conclusions are worth quoting in summary form:
- "Cyber threat actors of varying motivations and sophistication are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic as a thematic lure or subterfuge for their malicious activities, such as cyberespionage and cybercrime.
- "The global health sector is under extreme pressure to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. We assess that, almost certainly, ransomware will continue to target healthcare and medical research facilities, jeopardizing patient outcomes and wider public health efforts.
- "State intelligence collection requirements have shifted in response to COVID-19. We judge it is almost certain that cyber espionage directed at Canada will continue to attempt to steal Canadian intellectual property relating to COVID-19 medical research, as well as classified information regarding Government of Canada responses.
- "We assess that multiple state-sponsored cyber threat actors have very likely reduced staff and temporarily slowed their operational tempo, but that their online operations will increase over the coming year as more traditional espionage activities remain hampered by travel restrictions and social distancing.
- "Online influence campaigns continue to erode trust in official statements and figures, weakening public health responses and exacerbating the public anxiety and uncertainty that make COVID-19-themed cyber threats so effective.
- "We expect the remote workforce almost certainly to be increasingly targeted by foreign intelligence services and cybercriminals. Cyber threat actors are already attempting to identify individuals working at home employed in areas of strategic interest and exploiting technologies deployed in support of a remote workforce, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) or video-conferencing platforms.
- "We assess that it is very likely that authoritarian governments will use COVID-19 as a justification to procure and deploy surveillance technologies against their own citizens and expatriates residing in Canada or Canadians living abroad."
The point about state-sponsored threat groups facing staff reductions and adopting a lower operational tempo is interesting, and seems to represent the Centre's assessment of the probable effects the global economic downturn is having on intelligence services. The Bulletin mentions another probable effect of economic pain: intelligence services may well turn to revenue-generating cybercrime to make up their budget shortfalls.
Another caution in the Bulletin pertains to expatriate and immigrant communities: these are likely to come under pressure as authoritarian regimes tighten their own domestic controls.
The hostile influence campaigns the Centre alludes to are very much in the Russia disruptive style. The CBC observes that one such campaign has been active in Eastern Europe, where the Canadian-led battle group in Latvia has been fodder for rumors that it's a hotbed of COVID-19 infection.
Content moderation: immediate risk as a criterion for content suppression.
Facebook has moved against a range of misinformation about COVID-19. When BuzzFeed asked why it hasn't done the same with respect to anti-vaccine viewpoints or climate change dissent (BuzzFeed making at least a hypothetical case for censorship in both instances) Facebook drew a distinction in terms of the immediacy of the risk the misinformation posed.
Content moderation as fact-checking.
According to the Wall Street Journal and others, President Trump is considering another Executive Order, one that would change legal protections social media companies currently enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The proposed measure would move toward treating social media platforms not as a protected public square, but rather as a monopoly that exerts substantial control over individual speech.
The rumored Executive Order is generally being received as connected with Twitter’s recent “fact check” of a Presidential tweet, in which Twitter added a “fact check” link, to two of the President Trump’s tweets about problems he saw with mail-in ballots. The fact check link text was a restrained “Get the facts about mail-in ballots," and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained yesterday that “This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”
Thus Twitter seems to be moving toward a marketplace-of-ideas approach to controversial factual claims where the facts themselves seem open to reasonable dispute. This is a different approach from the imminent danger of harm criterion Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg advocated this week.
Update on the delusion that 5G infrastructure is implicated in COVID-19.
Over the weekend WIRED followed up on reports that the US Department of Homeland Security had warned local authorities to watch for vandalism against cellular infrastructure, and particularly against 5G towers. The crank theory that's animated vandals in northwestern Europe (and that now appears to have a beachhead in North America) comes in two varieties. The first holds that 5G electromagnetic signals actually carry the virus. The second variant, only marginally less plausible, holds that 5G electromagnetic radiation impairs the human immune system, thereby rendering populations near the towers more susceptible to infection.
There's no evidence for either view, and the first in particular seems to involve folkloric thinking functionally indistinguishable from the late-nineteenth-century view of China's Boxers that telegraph wires distressed and tormented airborne spirits. Both varieties of the theory are often accompanied by far-fetched conspiracy narratives in which various global actors have quietly engineered an electromagnetically enabled pandemic in pursuit of, well, fill in your own goals here. The assault on 5G would be funny were it not for the damage done by the righteous fists. This seems to be an example of a spontaneously arising popular delusion, and not the work of any nation state's intelligence service. Popular delusions, of course, become part of the environment within which disinformation functions, and it will be interesting to see if these stories are given extra legs by a nation state.
Some of them are getting extra legs from commerce. Now available on Amazon, if you're interested, are products that claim to protect the user from the malign effects of 5G signals, the Telegraph reports. The offerings include underwear, stickers, blankets, pills, and so forth. Not only do none of these things offer protection, but the protection itself would be protection against a perceived threat that's no threat at all. We looked at Amazon, and indeed the stuff is up for sale: Anti EMF Radiation Reducing Underwear ("protection from cell phone, wireless, bluetooth, and 5G radiation and EMF"), EMF Shielding Black Sportsbra (which features "moisture wicking properties for 5G"), EMF Protection Hat Hood (with "anti radiation fabric, EMF protection and RF shielding"), and anti-EMF stickers (these come in ten-packs, and it's not clear whether the stickers themselves afford protection or simply warn people of the dangers). "EMF" is "electromagnetic field." The US Federal Trade Commission says there's “no scientific proof that so-called shields significantly reduce exposure from these electromagnetic emissions." This is the tinfoil hat for the Twenty-first Century, and we have to say the garments are a lot more stylish than the old DIY hats used to be, you know, the kind you wore to keep the government from x-raying you through the ceiling...