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Russia is back, wilier than ever — and its not alone

Russian operatives are using a sneakier, more sophisticated version of their 2016 playbook to underm..

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Russian operatives are using a sneakier, more sophisticated version of their 2016 playbook to undermine the November U.S. election — and this time, groups inside and outside the U.S. are furthering their goal of sowing chaos.

Kremlin-backed operatives are flooding social media with fake accounts and stoking racial divisions around topics like Black Lives Matter. Articles in state-owned Russian media with millions of U.S. readers online seek to dampen Joe Bidens appeal among progressives and echo President Donald Trumps unsupported claims about voting fraud.

At the same time, Russian state-backed hackers are waging cyberattacks against political parties, campaigns, consultants and others tied to the U.S. elections — using more elaborate deceptions than in 2016, Microsoft said last week.

So far, the 2020 race hasnt featured any obvious repeats of the mass hacking and dumping of confidential documents that undermined Hillary Clinton at key moments during the 2016 campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies later blamed that breach on a covert Kremlin effort to torpedo the Democratic nominee and help Trump win.

But security researchers, former intelligence officials and lawmakers now worry that the Russians may still have a hand they havent played.

“The scale, scope and, most importantly, the impact of domestic disinformation is far greater than any foreign government could do to the United States” — Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Councils Digital Forensic Research Lab

“One thing we know that happened in 2016 was Russia, particularly with misinformation and disinformation, tried to exacerbate those divisions that we see play out in real time in America,” Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) told an audience at a cybersecurity conference last week. “Im very, very concerned in these last 50-plus days whether Russia could try to exacerbate those kinds of racial divisions again.”

In some ways, Russias job is easier than it was in 2016. American, Chinese and Iranian copycats are now pumping out falsehoods likely to seed the same divisions and doubts about the legitimacy of the election, often mimicking tactics first deployed by the Kremlin.

And the biggest threat this year may be Americans themselves. Many have embraced a deluge of fringe ideas and misinformation to a degree that may dwarf those foreign efforts. Extremists in the U.S. have adopted much of Moscows online strategy, including creating fake online personas to pump out falsehoods. Case in point: The QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges a plot by elite pedophiles and the “deepstate” to overthrow Trump, has gone so mainstream its poised to send adherents to Congress.

“The scale, scope and, most importantly, the impact of domestic disinformation is far greater than any foreign government could do to the United States,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Councils Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online influence campaigns — and was itself the victim of recent Russian cyberattacks.

“Russia is continuing to evolve its tactics,” he added. “But the playing field has shifted since 2016.”

Worst-case scenarios

The question of what exactly Russia is up to has spawned a political brawl in Washington, where congressional Democrats have accused the Trump administration of failing to disclose all it knows about the Kremlins activities. They also say the president is pushing a false narrative that this years most potent election threat comes from China, which Trump contends favors Biden. Intelligence officials have told POLITICO that no evidence backs up those claims.

Still, Trumps top counterintelligence official, William Evanina, has agreed that Moscow is seeking to attack the election. He told lawmakers last month that Russia aims to “denigrate” Biden “and what it sees as an anti-Russia establishment.” Those efforts — plus influence campaigns by China and Iran — are “a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy,” he said in an earlier statement.

Last week, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four individuals, including Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawyer with ties to Trump, accusing them of being active Russian agents. In particular, the U.S. accused Derkach of leaking doctored audiotapes aimed at discrediting Biden.

“The United States will continue to use all the tools at its disposal to counter these Russian disinformation campaigns,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Still, social media posts about those recordings have drawn millions of views among mostly Trump supporters after the president and his allies promoted them, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

Ten U.S. and international national security officials, misinformation experts and tech executives who spoke to POLITICO said their major concerns include a hack of either campaign coming to light only days before November 3. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss national security matters.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has said the U.S. will continue to counter misinformation campaigns | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

That would mirror not only the months of anti-Clinton leaks from 2016, but also the run-up to Frances 2017 presidential election, when Russian hackers released reams of internal documents from Emmanuel Macrons campaign.

No such leaks have yet been made public in this election. Senior U.S. national security and intelligence officials say they also have seen no new Russian efforts to hack the nations election infrastructure, such as voting machines, election device vendors and state voter databases.

But officials warned that Moscow is engaging in information warfare through a combination of attempted social media manipulation, old school propaganda and other dirty tricks.

Conspiracy theories like QAnon and racial divisions stoked by right-wing extremists online appear to be making it more difficult for Russias direct campaigns to gain massive followings, with recently exposed Kremlin efforts garnering limited traction with social media users.

But if Moscow still intends to try to weaken the U.S. by generating doubt around the election itself, such homegrown falsehoods would help achieve that goal, according to misinformation experts.

Moscow forced to evolve

Another change from 2016: Tougher oversight by social media companies and increased awareness from U.S. security agencies about Russias tactics have forced the Kremlins operatives to step up their game.

Before the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency — a St. Petersburg-based propaganda outfit with ties to the Russian government — was able to buy political ads on Facebook, some of them in rubles, and create fake social media profiles that drew widespread followings around posts on both sides of issues like Americas racial divisions and the countrys treatment of immigrants.

But some of those doors have closed.

After receiving widespread criticism for their 2016 failings, Facebook, Twitter and Googles YouTube have spent the past two years removing millions of misleading posts and so-called bot networks of fake accounts controlled by Russian operatives. They have also limited the ways Kremlin-owned media outlets can spread their messages online.

On September 1, Facebook and Twitter announced their latest attempts at curbing Russias influence by removing a handful of accounts and social media pages linked to an Internet Research Agency campaign to target progressive voters with a fake news website that pumped out left-leaning articles.

Seeking to evade the hunt for fake accounts, the IRA used artificial intelligence to create photos of non-existent people, then built social media personas with those images to push news articles to left-minded online groups, the two companies said. Most strikingly, the IRA also hired freelance journalists to write for a bogus online news outlet called PeaceData that promoted causes favored by Russia, such as attacks on Belarus opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela.

The elaborate tactics highlight how much harder it has become for Russias misinformation campaigns to reach Americans on social media, said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, an analytics firm that worked with Facebook on the recent takedown.

But even the new methods did not guarantee success. PeaceDatas English-language social media presence, for instance, failed to gain traction in the U.S. before it was outed as a Kremlin front, garnering just 200 followers after creating its Facebook page in mid-May.

“If youre running a fake operation, trying to achieve success when you dont have any real friends is tough,” said Nimmo, who has tracked the IRAs activities for years. “The underlying reality is that its harder to conduct a successful campaign than you may think.”

Russias U.S. targets

Still, misinformation experts and national security officials say Moscow is again targeting the same voters as in both the 2016 presidential race and 2018 midterm elections.

The goal: to suppress turnout among disaffected Democratic voters and galvanize Trump supporters to head to the polls.

Last October, for instance, Facebook removed 50 IRA-linked Read More – Source

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China surveillance of journalists to use ‘traffic-light’ system

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bbc– The Chinese province of Henan is building a surveillance system with face-scanning technology that can detect journalists and other “people of concern”.

Documents seen by BBC News describe a system that classifies journalists into a “traffic-light” system – green, amber and red.

Journalists in the “red” category would be “dealt with accordingly”, they say.

The Henan Public Security Bureau has not responded to a request for comment.

The documents, discovered by the surveillance analyst firm IPVM, also outline plans to surveil other “people of concern”, including foreign students and migrant women.

Human Rights Watch said: “This is not a government that needs more power to track more people… especially those who might be trying to peacefully hold it accountable.”

‘Thematic libraries’

The documents, published on 29 July, are part of a tendering process, encouraging Chinese companies to bid for a contract to build the new system, won, on 17 September, by NeuSoft.

NeuSoft has not responded to BBC News request for comment.

The system includes facial-recognition technology linked to thousands of cameras in Henan, to alert authorities when a “person of concern” is located.

“People of concern” would be categorised into “thematic libraries” – in an already existing database of information about and images of people in the province.

The system would also connect with China’s national database.

‘Key concern’

One of the groups of interest to the Henan Public Security Bureau is journalists, including foreign journalists.

“The preliminary proposal is to classify key concerned journalists into three levels,” the documents say.

“People marked in red are the key concern.

“The second level, marked in yellow, are people of general concern.

“Level three, marked in green – are for journalists who aren’t harmful.”

And an alert would be triggered as soon as “journalists of concern”, marked as “red” – or “yellow”, if they had previous criminal charges – booked a ticket to travel into the province.

The system would also assess foreign students and divide them into three categories of risk – “excellent foreign students, general personnel, and key people and unstable personnel”.

“The safety assessment is made by focusing on the daily attendance of foreign students, exam results, whether they come from key countries, and school-discipline compliance,” the documents say.

The schools themselves would need to notify the authorities of students with security concerns.

And those considered to be of concern would be tracked.

During politically sensitive periods, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, “a wartime alarm mechanism” would be activated and tracking of “key concern” students stepped up, including tracking their cell phones.

The documents outline a desire for the system to contain information taken from:

  • cell phones
  • social media – such as WeChat and Weibo
  • vehicle details
  • hotel stays
  • travel tickets
  • property ownership
  • photos (from existing databases)

It should also focus on “stranded women”, or non-Chinese migrant women who do not have the right to live in China.

A large number of women enter China to find work.

Others have been trafficked from neighbouring countries.

And the system would “dock” with the National Immigration Bureau, the Ministry of Public Security and Henan police, among others.

The documents were published around the time the Chinese government criticised foreign media outlets for their coverage of the Henan floods.

Conor Healy, Government Director of IPVM, said: “The technical architecture of mass surveillance in China remains poorly understood… but building custom surveillance technology to streamline state suppression of journalists is new.

“These documents shed light on what China’s public-security officials want from mass surveillance.”

China’s facial-recognition system is thought to already be in use across the country.

And last year, the Washington Post reported Huawei had tested artificial-intelligence software that could recognise people belonging to the Uighur ethnic minority and alert police.

Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said: “The goal is chilling, ensuring that everyone knows they can and will be monitored – and that they never know what might trigger hostile interest.”

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QUALCOMM REBRANDS SNAPDRAGON CHIPS THAT POWER MANY OF THE WORLD’S PHONES IN ATTEMPT TO BE LESS CONFUSING

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independent– Qualcomm has announce a major rebrand of its Snapdragon chips, in a move that could make choosing a phone vastly more simple.

The company sells its Snapdragon chips to a vast range of other companies – such as Samsung, HP and OnePlus – which use them to power devices including mobile phones, watches and laptops.

But comparing those devices can often be difficult, because of the confusing name of those Snapdragon processors, which are marked by a host of complex numbers. Since processors are at the heart of the devices, it can therefore be difficult to know whether a given phone is better than another.

But Qualcomm now says that it will simplify its branding in a host of ways, most of which bring new branding to the line.

The most obvious one is that the Qualcomm and Snapdragon brands will be separated. While they will still be owned by the same company as before, the Qualcomm will be removed from the chips itself.

More usefully, however, those complicated names will be changed.

Until now, Snapdragon products have come with three different names. Each of the numbers was intended to show where it was in the line-up: the first indicating the power, the second what generation, and the third used to separate different products within those generations.

But that was difficult to know and to compare. It also led to struggles with Snapdragon running out of names – it has a Snapdragon 695, for instance, and so only space for four more chips in that line-up.

Instead, it will move to a “new simplified and consistent naming structure for our platforms makes it easier for our customers to discover and choose devices powered by Snapdragon”, it says. “This means our mobile platforms will transition to a single-digit series and generation number, aligning with other product categories — starting with our newest flagship Snapdragon 8-series platform.”

It did not give information on what that new naming system would be, and promised more information would be revealed at another event on 30 November.

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Gigabit broadband: Internet seen as top homebuyer priority

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bbc– A fast internet connection is now one of the most important factors for homebuyers, according to a survey of 294 estate agents across the UK.

Questions about connectivity, usually “full fibre” broadband, are up 69% since the pandemic began, the research, by Omdia for telecoms equipment maker Huawei, suggests.

Speeds of more than 300Mbps are being sought by 34% of buyers – and, according to 33% of the estate agents, can add £5,000 to the sale price of a home – while 23% want 1Gbps.

Asked to name the single most important factor is for homebuyers:

  • 23% said the size of the property
  • 20% said broadband quality
  • 18% said the number of bedrooms
  • 10% said the age of the property is
  • 9% said transport links

“In many cases, customers feel that good internet is a ‘must have’,” James Hummerstone-Pope, from Purple Bricks, said.

“And poor wi-fi and a bad mobile signal can be a deal breaker.

“Fibre broadband definitely makes properties more appealing.

“And people will sometimes walk away from a property if they feel the broadband and phone signals aren’t good enough.”

  • Vodafone to offer full fibre broadband to millions
  • Half-a-million homes to get broadband boost

The government has promised to “bring full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025”.

And research from telecoms regulator Ofcom suggests 18.2 million homes (62%) already have access to 300Mbps or faster.

But only a fraction pay for such high speeds.

And the average UK speed is actually 50.4Mbps.

Critical factors

In Scotland and the South West, good broadband is the most important factor for homebuyers, the survey suggests.

But London-based estate agent Foxtons said while buyers considered the internet important – “particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic” – it was usually outweighed by other factors.

“Choosing which property to purchase is an incredibly complex decision that depends on numerous different factors,” a representative said.

“In our experience, the price and perceived value for money, the size and type of property, provision of outside space, as well as proximity to local amenities and schools are some of the most critical factors in the decision-making process.”

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