The Technology 202: Nonprofit expands free security services for campaigns as election season heats up

The Technology 202: Nonprofit expands free security services for campaigns as election season heats up

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Political campaigns might not have the time or money to seek out tech talent and services in their busiest season, even as concerns loom about election hacking and interference. A political odd couple is trying to change that. 

Defending Digital Campaigns — founded by Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, and Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager — is offering campaigns a wide range of free and discounted cybersecurity services. 

The nonprofit organization, which acts as a clearinghouse between campaigns and the companies, announced yesterday that it broadly expanded its industry partners to include tech heavyweights such as Microsoft and Cloudflare. 

DDC is designed to be a one-stop shop for campaigns to get protections against phishing, websites and mobile app security, multi-factor authentication through security keys, and more. 

“DDC will create even more value for campaigns by housing a number of these offerings from different companies,” Ginny Badanes, director of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, tells me. “We think this will help increase adoption of these services and ultimately make campaigns more secure.” Microsoft is offering its suite of Office and business products for campaigns at a discount. 

It’s also a more expedient way to ensure campaigns can access their services, especially in a complicated regulatory environment, companies say. DDC secured Federal Election Commission approval to provide campaigns with free or discounted services last year. By partnering with the organization, companies don’t have to seek out individual approvals — a process that can take several months.  

Alissa Starzak, Cloudflare’s head of public policy, told our researcher Tonya Riley in a recent interview that the partnership with DDC reflected “a reality of time” as the Iowa caucuses approach. 

Cloudflare has said many campaigns were already using the free version of its service, while others were paying for additional protections. The company has provided protection to 18 of the 32 U.S. presidential campaigns, and at least 23 U.S. Senate campaigns. But with the DDC partnership, Cloudflare will be able to provide business-level services to campaigns for free. 

Congressional campaigns that were using our free service already,” Starzak said. “The good thing about this project is it will make a broader set of services for free. They already know what they can get.”

Partnerships like DDC could go a long way in helping campaigns improve their tech-savvy and security practices heading into 2020 — which experts could help candidates avoid some of the same technical pitfalls and security exposed by the Russian interference in 2016. 

But given the high stakes, some are calling for Washington to do more to make accessing these services easier for campaigns. 

While the FEC has taken major steps toward easing the restrictions on offering free services, there are still limitations. The commission ruled in July that the cybersecurity company Area1 could provide campaigns with free services because it was already offering similar services to other organizations such as non-profits at the same cost, the New York Times reported. 

Daniel Petalas, a former general counsel at the FEC who represented Area1’s petition in that ruling, said the decision was a good step, but still didn’t provide enough clarity for the industry or campaigns. 

“Political campaigns are highly targeted and vulnerable, and as not-for-profits often cannot spend resources to protect themselves as they should,” he told me. “The FEC is historically unwilling and presently unable to act to make these services available at no or low cost, despite the willingness of providers to come to the aid of the campaigns.” 

Petalas thinks Congress should step in and create a broader exception for companies to provide campaigns with cybersecurity services. 

But companies have a major commercial incentive to offer services to campaigns. It can lead to publicity for their businesses, and potentially even open new avenues of business down the line. “Campaign finance hawks are wary of opening the floodgates to all security organizations out of concern they’ll try to barter for political favors later,” my colleague Joseph Marks has written. 

But Starzak praised the FEC’s “thoughtfulness” In approaching the issue. 

“The FEC has to weigh their desire to protect political campaigns from cyberattack with their mission of protecting the integrity of the campaign finance process,” she said. “This is a difficult balance, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness shown by the FEC. We expect that the FEC will continue to show similar care and careful consideration in new cases that come before them.”  


BITS: London police said today that they would start identifying people in real-time using facial recognition, The New York Times’s Adam Satariano reports. It’s now one of the largest Western police forces using the controversial technology, drawing the department into a global debate about facial recognition’s risks. 

The department said in a statement that the software would help “tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and help protect the vulnerable.” But it otherwise provided few details. Police departments say facial recognition can provide them with an essential leg up in solving crimes, but privacy advocates warn it’s invasive and could lead to broad surveillance. 

The United Kingdom has been grappling with how facial recognition should be used. A judge there ruled last year that police departments could use the technology without violating privacy or human rights, a case that was appealed. But the country’s top privacy watchdog has raised concerns about the use of the technology.

NIBBLES: Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) is accusing Google of blurring the lines between paid advertising and organic search results in its latest redesign. The senator has been putting a spotlight on designs aimed at manipulating user behavior, or “dark patterns,” in the past year. 

“We’ve seen multiple instances over the last few years where Google has made paid advertisements ever more indistinguishable from organic search results,” Warner told me. “This is yet another example of a platform exploiting its bottleneck power for commercial gain, to the detriment of both consumers and also small businesses.”

Warner pointed to several instances in which paid Google search ads were used to deceive users into paying fake businesses or scam health-care plans. He and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) introduced the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction Act last year to prohibit large online platforms from using dark patterns.

Warner’s criticism comes as paid search engine firm NordicClick told Deanna Ting at Digiday that its clients have already seen a spike in clicks on ads since the rollout.

This isn’t the first time Google has seen criticism of its designs in Washington: The Federal Trade Commission also slammed Google for the behavior in 2013. The agency urged the company to make sure the distinction between ads and organic search more noticeable. The Guardian’s Alex Hern outlined how the look has changed over the years here: 

My colleague Tony Romm pointed out that Google is hardly the only offender:

BYTES: Amazon Prime Video offers troves of conspiracy theories and questionable amateur videos alongside award-winning movies and television shows, Erich Schwartzel, Shane Shifflett and Alexandra Berzon at the Wall Street Journal report

The videos  which have been banned from other streaming services in some instances highlight the e-commerce giant’s struggles to police its platform. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.) 

Amazon hosts tens of thousands of user-uploaded video, or nearly 10 times as much as its competitor Netflix. The low barrier to entry has attracted conspiracy theorists whose work has been removed from other platforms, as well as low-quality amateurs looking to rack up advertising money, reporters found. 

That includes videos from Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and founder of the website Infowars. That includes a documentary called “Endgame” that a subscriber stumbled on when searching for the blockbuster Marvel sequel “Avengers: Endgame.” Jones’s videos, which have been banned by a number of other tech platforms including Facebook, were removed for violating Amazon’s content policy after the Journal flagged them to Amazon.

Unlike YouTube, Amazon does not label content as user-generated, making it harder for users to discern quality. Some of the platform’s most prolific users can make hundreds of dollars in a matter of weeks by flooding the site with low-quality video.

Amazon uses a combination of artificial-intelligence tools and human reviewers to detect violations of terms of service, the company says.


— News from the public sector:


— News from the private sector:


–California-based Rideshare Drivers United is helping to launch a new global union, the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, the group announced yesterday. The group will meet with the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in London on Jan. 29 and 30. Drivers have been invited from 23 countries, including Brazil, India, Nigeria and Australia.

“These app-based companies are global, so we drivers need to organize globally, too,” said RDU organizer Nicole Moore, a member of the meeting’s planning committee. RDU organizers hope to bring their experience galvanizing drivers in California to push for laws that protect gig workers and leverage it into a global strategy for protecting app-based transport workers.

— More news about tech workforce and culture:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

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Chris Hughes wants another chance

The multimillionaire Facebook co-founder is the latest moneyed titan to turn philanthropist, and has even called for Facebook’s dismantling. Can he really make a difference?



The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the Doomsday Clock up to 100 seconds to midnight — a metaphor for the end of the world — in a recognition of growing threats from nuclear war, climate change and disinformation, my colleagues Hannah Knowles and Abby Abby Ohlheiser report.


— Coming Up:

  • The House Energy and Commerce communications and technology subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Empowering and Connecting Communities through Digital Equity and Internet Adoption” on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute will host an event titled “Privacy’s Best Friend: How Encryption Protects Consumers, Companies, and Governments Worldwide” on Feb. 4 at 12 p.m.
  • Federal Trade Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter will address current technology policy issues during a panel conversation hosted by the Technology Policy Institute on Feb. 5 at 10 a.m.
  • Silicon Flatirons will host its “Technology Optimism and Pessimism” conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. Speakers include Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
  • Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona.

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