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Online Trolls Exposed By FBI Task Force

FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”

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FBI Director Christopher Wray
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House. VOA
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The FBI’s new foreign influence task force is sharing information about online trolls with technology companies as part of the bureau’s behind-the-scenes effort to disrupt Russian and other foreign influence operations aimed at U.S. elections, FBI and Justice Department officials say.

FBI Director Christopher Wray set up the task force last November as part of a broader government approach to counter foreign influence operations and to prevent a repeat of Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election in part by orchestrating a massive social media campaign aimed at swaying American public opinion and sowing discord.

“Technology companies have a front-line responsibility to secure their own networks, products and platforms,” Wray said. “But we’re doing our part by providing actionable intelligence to better enable them to address abuse of their platforms by foreign actors.”

He said FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”

Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department,
Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department, testifies on Capitol Hill. VOA

FBI expertise

The task force works with personnel in all 56 FBI field offices and “brings together the FBI’s expertise across the waterfront — counterintelligence, cyber, criminal and even counterterrorism — to root out and respond to foreign influence operations,” Wray said at a White House briefing.

Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general, said on Monday that the FBI’s unpublicized sharing of information with the social media companies is a “key component” of the Justice Department’s to counter covert foreign influence efforts.

“It is those providers who bear the primary responsibility for securing their own products and platforms,” Hickey said this week at MisinfoCon, an annual conference on misinformation held in Washington, D.C.

“By sharing information with them, especially about who certain users and account holders actually are, we can assist their own, voluntary initiatives to track foreign influence activity and to enforce their own terms of service,” Hickey said.

 Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. VOA

The comments come as top U.S. security officials from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on down warned about continued attempts by Russia and potentially others to disrupt the November midterm elections.

Coats said on Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies continue “to see a pervasive message campaign” by Russia, while Wray said Moscow “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”

But the officials and social media company executives say the ongoing misinformation campaign does not reach the unprecedented levels seen during the 2016 election.

Hickey, of the Justice Department’s national security division, said that the agency doesn’t often “expose and attribute” ongoing foreign influence operations partly to protect the investigations, methods and sources, and partly “to avoid even the appearance of partiality.”

The logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. VOA
The logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. VOA

Social media, technology companies

Social media and technology companies, widely criticized for their role in allowing Russian operatives to use their platforms during the 2016 election, have taken steps over the past year to crack down on misinformation.

In June, Twitter announced new measures to fight abuse and trolls, saying it is focused on “developing machine learning tools that identify and take action on networks of spammy or automated accounts automatically.”

In April, Facebook announced that it had taken down 135 Facebook and Instagram accounts and 138 Facebook pages linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm indicted in February for orchestrating Russia’s social media operations in 2016.

The company did not say whether it had removed the pages and accounts based on information provided by the FBI.

Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum last month that the social network has moved to shield its users against fake information by deploying artificial intelligence tools that detect fake accounts and instituting transparency in advertising requirements.

Tom Burt, vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, speaking at the same event, disclosed that the company had worked with law enforcement earlier this year to foil a Russian attempt to hack the campaigns of three candidates running for office in the midterm elections.

He did not identify the candidates by name but said they “were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington. VOA

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confirmed late last month that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network, raising questions about the extent to which Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 elections.

Wray stressed that the influence operations are not “an election cycle threat.”

Also Read: Home Router Devices Were Compromised By Foreign Hackers Says FBI

“Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it’s election season or not,” he said. (VOA)

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The Astronauts Of The Emergency Landing Rocket Will Fly Again in Spring

Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a criminal investigation into the matter.

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Russian Rocket
Head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin addresses the media upon the arrival of Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague at Baikonur airport, Kazakhstan. VOA

The head of Russia’s space agency said Friday that two astronauts who survived the midair failure of a Russian rocket would fly again and would provisionally travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in spring of next year.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, was speaking a day after Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and American Nick Hague made a dramatic emergency landing in Kazakhstan after the failure of the Soyuz rocket carrying them to the orbital ISS.

Rogozin Friday posted a picture on Twitter of himself next to the two astronauts and said they had now arrived in Moscow. Both men escaped unscathed and feel fine, Roscosmos has said.

Russian Rocket
Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, center, and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague, right front, meet with family members and acquaintances upon their arrival at Baikonur airport, Kazakhstan. VOA

The mishap occurred as the first and second stages of a Russian rocket separated shortly after the launch from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur.

Thursday’s accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launch pad explosion.

The Interfax news agency Friday cited a source familiar with the Russian investigation as saying that a faulty valve had caused the first stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket to malfunction even though the valve had been properly checked before take-off.

Russian rocket
A view shows the Soyuz capsule that carried U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, after it made an emergency landing, near the city of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. VOA

NASA has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the United States retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, although the agency has announced plans for a test flight carrying two astronauts on a SpaceX commercial rocket next April.

Space is an area of cooperation between the United States and Russia at a time of fraught relations. Asked about the mishap, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House he was “not worried” that American astronauts have to rely on Russia to get into space.

Moscow has suspended all manned space launches, while Rogozin has ordered a state commission to investigate what went wrong. Russia’s Investigative Committee has also opened a criminal investigation into the matter.

Also Read: Microsoft And NASA Come Together to Make A New Spacecraft

Unmanned launches of the Progress spacecraft, which carry food and other supplies to the ISS and use the same rocket system as Soyuz, might also be suspended, Interfax has said. (VOA)