Daily Digest (10/29)

US Charges 8 in Alleged Chinese Surveillance Effort; Issues Laid Bare as Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs Are Grilled by GOP Senators; Microsoft: Iranian Hackers Posed as Conference Organizers; NSA Avoids Questions on ‘Backdoors’ in Tech Products.

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US Charges 8 in Alleged Chinese Surveillance Effort 

The U.S. Justice Department charged eight people with working on behalf of the Chinese government to coerce a New Jersey man wanted by Beijing to return to China to face charges, officials said Wednesday. 

Five were arrested Wednesday and were accused of participating in a covert operation that officials said was built on intimidation, bullying and “very disturbing” tactics to pressure targets sought by Beijing, The Associated Press reports.

In a case filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the eight men were charged with conspiring to act as illegal agents for China.

The defendants were accused of participating in a Chinese government operation known as “Fox Hunt,” created to help Beijing locate fugitives abroad for legitimate purposes, according to AP.

But U.S. officials say the practice has been used to go after dissidents and political opponents. 

The campaign included surveillance and online harassment of the man’s adult daughter, as a well as a note left on his front door threatening his family. 

“Without coordination with our government, China’s repatriation squads enter the United States, surveil and locate the alleged fugitives and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China, where they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in announcing the charges.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment, AP reports. 

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Issues Laid Bare as Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs Are Grilled by GOP Senators

U.S Lawmakers were split at a U.S Senate hearing Wednesday on how to hold Big Tech accountable under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects companies from liability over content posted by users. 

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google argued that the law was crucial to free internet expression, saying Section 230 gave them the tools to balance between preserving free speech and moderating content, Reuters reports.

But they appeared open to suggestions that the law needed moderate changes.

In a claim that angered some Republicans, the CEOs also agreed that the companies should be held liable if the platforms act as a publisher, though they denied claims that the platforms were referees over political speech. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who claimed that his company had no influence over the elections.

“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Cruz asked, referencing the decision to block stories earlier this month from The New York Post about the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

But Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said he had no questions, calling the hearing “nonsense,” Reuters reports. 

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Microsoft: Iranian Hackers Posed as Conference Organizers

Iranian hackers have been posing as conference organizers in Germany and Saudi Arabia to break into the email accounts of “high-profile” people, Microsoft claimed Wednesday. 

The company said it had detected attempts by the hacking group it calls “Phosphorus” to trick former government officials, policy experts and academics, The Associated Press reports. 

The targets, according to Microsoft, included more than 100 prominent individuals who were invited by the hackers to the Munich Security Conference — attended by world leaders each February — and the upcoming Think 20 Summit, in Saudi Arabia.

“We believe Phosphorus is engaging in these attacks for intelligence-collection purposes,” Tom Burt, Microsoft’s security chief, told AP.

“The attacks were successful in compromising several victims, including former ambassadors and other senior policy experts who help shape global agendas and foreign policies in their respective countries,” he said.

Microsoft did not identify the nationalities of the people targeted, but said the activity was not related to next week’s U.S. election. 

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NSA Avoids Questions on ‘Backdoors’ in Tech Products 

The U.S. National Security Agency has rebuffed efforts by a leading congressional critic to determine whether it has been placing software backdoors into commercial technology products.

The so-called backdoors enable the NSA and other agencies to scan large amounts of traffic without warrants, Reuters reports.

Three former intelligence officials told Reuters that the agency had developed new rules for such practices after the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013.

But aides to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the NSA had stonewalled the efforts to understand the new guidelines.

“Secret encryption backdoors are a threat to national security and the safety of our families,” Wyden told Reuters. “It’s only a matter of time before foreign hackers or criminals exploit them in ways that undermine American national security.

“The government shouldn’t have any role in planting secret backdoors in encryption technology used by Americans.”

Agency officials declined to say how it had updated its policies on obtaining special access to commercial products. 

“At NSA, it’s common practice to constantly assess processes to identify and determine best practices,” Anne Neuberger, head of NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate, told Reuters. 

“We don’t share specific processes and procedures.”

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By DPN Staff