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Hillicon Valley: Facebook suspends misinformation networks targeting US | Lawmakers grill census officials on cybersecurity | Trump signs order to protect GPS | Dem senators propose federal facial recognition moratorium

Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill’s newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) and Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills).

 

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SUSPENDED: Facebook on Wednesday announced that it had removed three unconnected networks of accounts and pages targeting the United States, Ukraine and Myanmar with misinformation.

The small number of accounts — six on Facebook and five on Instagram — targeting the U.S. were based in Iran. The individuals behind the misinformation, which focused on religious and international policy issues, used fake accounts to post in groups and spread content in comment sections.

Facebook also removed a network linked to Russian military intelligence services focused on influencing public perception of news events in Ukraine and neighboring countries. The social media platform noted that some of the 78 Facebook accounts posed as citizen journalists and tried to contact public figures.

Finally, Facebook removed 13 accounts and 10 pages linked to two telecom companies in Vietnam and Myanmar that posed as independent telecom companies. The network circulated content disparaging other service providers in Myanmar.

Facebook removed all the highlighted accounts, pages and groups for violating its policies prohibiting government interference and coordinated, inauthentic behavior.

Read more here.

 

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CENSUS CYBERSECURITY: Lawmakers grilled top Census Bureau officials on Wednesday about the cybersecurity of the 2020 census, which kicks off nationwide next month and marks the first time that Americans will be able to fill out the form online.

Officials are facing new urgency over the issue after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report earlier Wednesday highlighting cybersecurity concerns and following the breakdown of the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party to count votes in the state’s caucuses last week.

Those issues were front and center during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday that featured testimony from Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and GAO officials.

What’s in the report: According to the GAO report, the bureau faces “significant cybersecurity challenges in securing its systems and data.” The report said the Census Bureau, one month before the online launch, still has to fix identified cyber vulnerabilities, implement Department of Homeland Security recommendations and ensure that collected information is safe from data breaches. 

The clock is ticking: The census will be available to fill out online beginning in mid-March, while the bureau plans to send out census forms to most U.S. households by April 1. 

At the hearing: “All 2020 census IT systems have been successfully tested or deployed and are on track,” Dillingham said, adding that “we have a high degree of confidence.”

But lawmakers were skeptical of those claims, citing the GAO report and the debacle in Iowa.

“Cybersecurity is going to have to be a top priority for you all,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said during the hearing. “If ever there was a juicy target for those who want to hack in and sow discord and all the rest of it, it would be our 10-year census where we are putting it online like never before.”

Read more on the hearing here.

 

NEW EXECUTIVE ORDER: President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that directs federal agencies to take steps to reduce the disruption of critical infrastructure that relies on positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services like GPS.

The executive order is aimed at strengthening the resilience of critical infrastructure that relies on PNT services, including systems involved in transportation, electricity delivery and communications. Officials billed it as the “first-ever” executive order on PNT use. 

“The national and economic security of the United States depends on the reliable and efficient functioning of critical infrastructure,” the executive order states.

“Because of the widespread adoption of PNT services, the disruption or manipulation of these services has the potential to adversely affect the national and economic security of the United States. To strengthen national resilience, the Federal Government must foster the responsible use of PNT services by critical infrastructure owners and operators,” it states.

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Specifically, the order directs the Department of Commerce to develop so-called PNT profiles that will be used to enable both the public and the private sector to identify risks to networks posed by PNT services and identify “appropriate” PNT services.

Read more here.

 

KEEP CALM AND FINE ON: The United Kingdom’s Office of Communications will be empowered to levy fines against social media companies that do not take steps to remove harmful content from their platforms.

An announcement Wednesday from the Digital and Home secretaries stated that the agency will be granted the power to “hold companies to account if they do not tackle internet harms such as child sexual exploitation and abuse and terrorism.”

“Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly and minimize the risk of it appearing, with particularly robust action on terrorist content and online child sexual abuse,” read the announcement.

The content regulations hinge not on content that is banned under U.K. law, according to the announcement, but rather on forcing companies to strictly follow their own stated guidelines for content moderation.

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“To protect freedom of expression, the regulations will not stop adults from accessing or posting legal content that some may find offensive. Instead, companies will be required to explicitly state what content and behavior is acceptable on their sites in clear and accessible terms and conditions and enforce these effectively, consistently and transparently,” the statement reads.

Read more here.

 

WE WON’T BE WATCHING YOU: Two Democratic senators on Wednesday introduced a bill that would place a moratorium on federal government use of facial recognition technology until Congress passes legislation regulating it.

The Ethical Use of Facial Recognition Act, proposed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), would also prohibit state and local governments from using federal funds for the controversial technology, which scans faces for the purpose of identification.

It would create a commission tasked with providing recommendations to Congress for future federal government use of facial recognition 18 months after the bill’s passage.

“Facial recognition is a powerful and rapidly evolving technology, but without proper oversight it poses a serious risk to privacy and safety,” Booker said in a statement. 

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“Facial recognition technology has been demonstrated to be often inaccurate — misidentifying and disproportionately targeting women and people of color. To protect consumer privacy and safety, Congress must work to set the rules of the road for responsible uses of this technology by the federal government.”

Read more here.

 

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY: Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg has recently outpaced President Trump on social media advertising in the 2020 campaign cycle by averaging more than $1 million a day on Facebook ads.

As of Monday, the former New York City mayor had spent $31 million on Facebook and Instagram ads since Jan. 1, according to Facebook ad data. Trump spent $5.64 million during that same period.

Bloomberg’s average of more than $1 million day on Facebook ads over the past two weeks was five times the amount the Trump campaign spent.

NBC News first reported on Bloomberg’s recent Facebook spending.

Bloomberg also spent nearly $4 million on Facebook ads targeting California over the past 30 days. The state is among those voting on Super Tuesday, March 3, along with Texas, North Carolina and Virginia, where Bloomberg has also spent big on Facebook ads.

Bloomberg has also spent $3 million on ads for Texas, another Super Tuesday state, in the past month.

Read more here.

 

A LIGHTER CLICK: Random but compelling

 

AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: California has a privacy law, but will companies comply? 

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Tech experts call for a shakeup after Iowa app breakdown (NPR / Laurel Wamsley) 

Report finds that the U.S. the must increase cyber defenses against Iran (CyberScoop / Sean Lyngaas)

Transgender users accuse TikTok of censorship (BBC News / Cristina Criddle) 

Bill introduced in California to fight back against food delivery apps (Motherboard / Edward Ongweso Jr. / Motherboard)

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