The US Justice Department said Thursday that it plans to inform Americans of foreign operations attempting to undermine confidence in US democracy. It’s part of a new policy that aims to combat hacking and disinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
The government’s plan is to notify US companies, private organizations and individuals when a hacking threat by foreign actors is detected, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” Rosenstein said in prepared remarks. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”
The new policy was included in a new Cyber-Digital Task Force Report the Justice Department released Thursday that describes six categories of cyberthreats and what the department is doing to combat them. The report addresses cyberattacks and ransomware schemes; theft of personally identifiable information and intellectual property; threats to personal privacy, such as blackmail and harassment; and attacks on critical infrastructure such as energy and telecommunications networks.
The policy underscores the challenges faced as the US tries to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, in which Russian actors used social media to sow seeds of discord among Americans. The US has charged Russians with using stolen identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram to create disruptive Facebook groups, buy divisive ads and post inflammatory images.
Disinformation has long been a part of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, and social media has allowed the trolling effort to expand on a viral scale. US intelligence has warned Congress that these campaigns will continue in future elections.
“The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest,” Rosenstein said. “Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.”
He went on to quote Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who last Friday warned that Russian efforts to influence US values, democracy and alliances are ongoing.
“These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not,” Rosenstein said, citing Coats.
Coats made his statement after US special counsel Robert Muellerconnected to the cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election campaign. Rosenstein said the hackers intended to interfere with the presidential election, but he noted that no evidence had been found to suggest the cyberattacks affected the outcome.
In February, the Justice Department indicted 13 Russian nationals and the Internet Research Agency, a group linked to Russian intelligence services, for a propaganda campaign spread across social media during the 2016 election.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have been scrutinized in recent months by Congress after US intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government had used these platforms to disseminate false news and advertisements to influence US elections in 2016. Earlier this year, representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter told Congress the companies had learned important lessons during the presidential election and pledged more transparency going forward.
Rosenstein also called out tech companies for the role they unsuspectingly played in disinformation campaigns.
“Technology companies bear primary responsibility for securing their products, platforms and services from misuse,” he said. “Many are now taking greater responsibility for self-policing, including by removing fake accounts. We encourage them to make it a priority to combat efforts to use their facilities for illegal schemes.”
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