from Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program and Net Politics

Week in Review: December 11, 2020

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi. WAM/Handout via REUTERS

Suspected Russian hackers compromise FireEye tools; Federal Trade Commission and forty-eight states sue Facebook; House passes National Defense Authorization Act; Google and Facebook make progress in Australia’s pay for news law; and Crown Princes of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia sued for hack and leak campaign.

December 11, 2020
2:24 pm (EST)

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi. WAM/Handout via REUTERS
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Suspected Russian Hackers Compromise FireEye Tools

On Tuesday, FireEye announced that their systems were hacked by suspected Russian state actors using techniques unfamiliar to Google, Microsoft, and the top cybersecurity research firms. In addition to probing FireEye’s network for information on government customers, the hackers stole elements of FireEye’s sophisticated Red Team toolset, which is used to test for clients’ vulnerabilities. Experts expect that equipped with FireEye’s toolset Russia will attempt to breach risky, high-profile targets. “In risky environments, you don’t want to burn your best tools, so this gives advanced adversaries a way to use someone else’s tools without burning their best capabilities,” noted Patrick Wardle, former National Security Agency hacker. The attack, which could expose important government and corporate clients to vulnerabilities, could also be a form of retaliation for FireEye consistently calling out Russian cyber operations. “The Russians believe in revenge,” remarked Jim Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Federal Trade Commission and Forty-Eight States Sue Facebook

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On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and forty-eight states sued Facebook, alleging the social media and advertising giant of illegally acquiring and stifling competition. Under particular scrutiny are the purchase of Instagram (2012) and WhatsApp (2014), two applications that could have fiercely competed with Facebook. Facebook has also been known to acquire and later shut down smaller potential competitors. Although the company has previously claimed that it is “too complicated and interconnected” to break up, prosecutors are hoping to force divesture from Instagram and WhatsApp and place restrictions on Facebook’s future mergers and acquisitions. “Accountability is long overdue,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The suit against Facebook is the latest consequence of growing bipartisan discontent with big tech. In October, the Department of Justice sued Google for allegedly maintaining an illegal search monopoly.

House Passes National Defense Authorization Act

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, when signed into law, will create a new White House cyber director, provide millions in funding to cybersecurity efforts, and spur improved cybersecurity coordination throughout the government at both the state and federal level. The NDAA will authorize the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) to probe the federal government’s networks for threats and issue administrative subpoenas related to network vulnerabilities. A new Joint Cyber Planning Office also will be created within CISA, replacing smaller task forces established to address specific threats. The bill includes twenty-six of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s recommendations from earlier this year. Senator Angus King (I-ME) said, “This is the most important piece of cybersecurity legislation ever passed.” Although President Trump threatened to veto the bill, citing frustrations with the absence of language revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the inclusion of a provision to remove Confederate names from military bases, the bill passed with an overwhelming majority, setting the stage for a potential veto override.

Google and Facebook Make Progress in Australia’s Pay for News Law

On Wednesday, Australia introduced legislation to parliament that requires Google and Facebook to pay for the right to display news articles by sharing advertising revenue with the original publishers. Google and Facebook would also be expected to share user data and provide a substantial notice period for any algorithm changes. However, unlike earlier drafts, the legislation now concedes that by funneling interested readers to publishers’ websites, Google and Facebook generate new and valuable business. The proposed legislation, tracked worldwide by governments hoping to reign in big tech, is a first. Facebook has already threatened to exclude Australian publishers and networks altogether if the law passes. Sydney Morning Herald’s publisher, Nine Entertainment Co., wrote in a statement that Facebook’s threat “is a demonstration of Facebook’s use of its monopoly power while failing to recognize the importance of reliable news content to balance the fake news that proliferates on their platform.”

Crown Princes of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia Sued for Hack and Leak Campaign

On Wednesday, The Hill reported that Ghada Oueiss, an Al Jazeera anchor, is suing Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed and multiple other Saudi and UAE officials for an alleged hack and leak campaign. Oueiss alleges that, in addition to distributing information stolen from her phone, the defendants—many of whom are believed to be responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018—shared doctored financial documents and photos intended to damage her reputation. On Twitter, prominent Saudi and Emirati leaders amplified the information, which was ultimately shared more than 40,000 times. Oueiss also claims that her life has been threatened repeatedly. In a July op-ed about the hack and leak, Oueiss wrote, “Although I was the target of this latest assault—no doubt because I regularly present critical reporting about Saudi Arabia and the UAE—the message to journalists across the Middle East is very clear: Don’t criticize the crown princes.”

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