At a glance.
- China conducts a major influence campaign in social media.
- Election-season cyberespionage and disinformation in Germany.
- Apple postpones its attempt at CSAM content moderation.
China gets busy in social media.
Reuters reports that China has continued and expanded a major disinformation campaign it began in 2019. The effort, whose onset roughly precedes with the breakout of COVID-19, has taken the virus as its principal subject matter. "Accounts on social networking sites vKontakte, LiveJournal and elsewhere in Russian, German, Spanish and other languages have asserted that the novel coronavirus emerged in the United States before China and that it was developed by the U.S. military." The specific charge is that the virus was deliberately engineered at Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the home of US bioweapon research until that program ended in 1969, and presently home to the US Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC) and its subordinate biological defense organization, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
The disinformation campaign has been widespread, extending to countries (like Argentina) that haven't historically received much attention from Beijing's influence operations. Reuters says, "This expansion suggests Chinese interests have made a deeper commitment to the sort of international propaganda techniques Russia has used for several years." The Wall Street Journal quotes Mandiant's John Hultquist (Mandiant is the principal source of the news accounts) to the effect that "They’re copying the Kremlin’s playbook." It's Russian-style in resourcing, direction, and extent, but it retains the Chinese practice of seeking to advance a particular line as opposed to the recent Russian practice of opportunistic disruption aimed at increasing the opposition's friction.
The disinformation effort in the US has taken the unusual turn of seeking to get Americans to attend physical protests nominally against supposed anti-Asian racism and speculation that COVID-19 had its origins in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Those efforts, the Journal says, seem largely to have fallen flat, but they represent an interesting attempt to move from the world of ideas to the physical world.
GhostWriter goes to the Bundestag.
The German Foreign Ministry yesterday lodged a complaint with Russia over ongoing attempts to stage cyberespionage and influence operations against the Bundestag during the run-up to national elections, Deutsche Welle reports. The activity, which is reported to have successfully compromised some Federal networks, is part of the long-running and often described GhostWriter campaign against Central and Eastern European targets.
The information GhostWriter obtained does not, by initial reports, seem to be highly sensitive, but its potential for disinformation and influence operations is regarded as significant.
The Washington Post reported that Germany's protest to Russia specifically attributed the campaign to the GRU ("reliable findings," the Post quotes official sources as calling their conclusions), and called upon Moscow to stop "illegal activity." German authorities bemoan the extent to which disinformation has intruded into the current election season. Citing a report by the NGO Avaaz, Deutsche Welle characterizes the problem as widespread, with much of the disinformation taking the form of fake news about candidates for the office of Chancellor. The Green Party's candidate, Annalena Baerbock, has received more attention than her principal rivals, Christian Democrat Armin Laschet and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz: she's receiving about 70% of the disinformation being circulated.
Apple backs off plans to scan for CSAM.
Influenced by adverse reaction from privacy hawks, Apple has decided to suspend its plans to incorporate screens for child sexual abuse material, CSAM, in iCloud. The company told TechCrunch on Friday, “Last month we announced plans for features intended to help protect children from predators who use communication tools to recruit and exploit them, and limit the spread of Child Sexual Abuse Material. Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
So Cupertino will take another run at the problem later, after discussion with those who’ve objected to the approach they announced in August. Apple has regarded the criticism as arising from a failure to communicate, and that it could have been clearer about what it regarded as an important safety feature that posed no real threat to privacy. But critics have seen at the very least a slippery slope of best practices, headed toward full-fledged, intrusive surveillance. The difficulty of screening for content that finds few defenders suggests the difficulties any system of content moderation will inevitably encounter when it runs up against privacy and freedom of speech.