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Russian hackers increase targeting of U.S. political groups: Microsoft – Globalnews.ca

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The same Russian military intelligence outfit that hacked the Democrats in 2016 has attempted similar intrusions into the computer systems of more than 200 organizations including political parties and consultants, Microsoft said Thursday.

Those efforts reflect a broader increase in targeting of U.S. political campaigns and related groups, the company said. “What we’ve seen is consistent with previous attack patterns that not only target candidates and campaign staffers but also those who they consult on key issues,” Tom Burt, a Microsoft vice-president, said in a blog post. U.S. political organizations were also probed, the company said.

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Most of the infiltration attempts by Russian, Chinese and Iranian agents were halted by Microsoft security software and the targets notified, he said. The company would not comment on who may have been successfully hacked or the impact.

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Although U.S. intelligence officials said last month that the Russians favour U.S. President Donald Trump and the Chinese prefer his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, Microsoft noted Thursday that Chinese state-backed hackers have targeted “high profile individuals associated with the election,” including people associated with the Biden campaign.

China’s hackers largely gather intelligence for the nation’s economic and political advantage, while Russia tends to weaponize stolen data to destabilize other governments.






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Microsoft did not assess which foreign adversary poses the greater threat to the integrity of the November presidential election. The consensus among cybersecurity experts is that Russian interference is the gravest. Senior Trump administration officials have disputed that, although without offering any evidence.

“This is the actor from 2016, potentially conducting business as usual,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “We believe that Russian military intelligence continues to pose the greatest threat to the democratic process.”

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The Microsoft post shows that Russian military intelligence continues to pursue election-related targets undeterred by U.S indictments, sanctions and other countermeasures, Hultquist said. It interfered in the 2016 campaign seeking to benefit the Trump campaign by hacking the Democratic National Committee and emails of John Podesta, the campaign manager of Hillary Clinton, and dumping embarrassing material online, congressional and FBI investigators have found.

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The same GRU military intelligence unit, known as Fancy Bear, that Microsoft identifies as being behind the current election-related activity also broke into voter registration databases in at least three states in 2016, though there is no evidence it tried to interfere with voting.

Microsoft, which has visibility into these efforts because its software is both ubiquitous and highly rated for security, did not address whether U.S. officials who manage elections or operate voting systems have been targeted by state-backed hackers this year. U.S. intelligence officials say they have so far not seen no evidence of infiltrations.

Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins geopolitics expert, said he was disappointed by Microsoft’s refusal to differentiate threat level by state actor. “They’re lumping in actors that operate in a very different fashion, probably to make this sound more bipartisan,” he said. “I just don’t understand why.”






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Microsoft said in the past year it has observed attempts by Fancy Bear to break into the accounts of people directly and indirectly affiliated with the U.S. election, including consultants serving Republican and Democratic campaigns and national and state party organizations — more than 200 groups in all.

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Also targeted was the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the European Parliament. A party spokesperson said the hacking attempts were unsuccessful. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think-tank , was another target. A spokesperson said there was no evidence of intrusion.

Microsoft did not say whether Russian hackers had attempted to break into the Biden campaign but did say that Chinese hackers from the state-backed group known as Hurricane Panda “appears to have indirectly and unsuccessfully” targeted the Biden campaign through non-campaign email accounts belonging to people affiliated with it.

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The Biden campaign did not confirm the attempt, although it said in a statement that it was aware of the Microsoft report.

The blog post said Iranian state-backed hackers have unsuccessfully tried to log into accounts of Trump campaign and administration officials between May and June of this year. “We are a large target, so it is not surprising to see malicious activity directed at the campaign or our staff,” Trump campaign deputy press secretary Thea McDonald said. She declined further comment.

Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director, said: “President Trump will beat Joe Biden fair and square and we don’t need or want any foreign interference.”

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In June, Google disclosed that Hurricane Panda had targeted Trump campaign staffers while Iranian hackers tried to breach accounts of Biden campaign workers. Such phishing attempts typically involve forged emails with links designed to harvest passwords or infect devices with malware.

Although both Attorney General William Barr and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien have both said China represents the greatest threat to U.S. elections, the only mention of a Trump administration official targeted by Chinese hackers is “at least one prominent individual formerly associated” with the administration.

Graham Brookie, director of digital forensic research at The Atlantic Council, disputes Barr and O’Brien’s claim that China poses the greater threat to this year’s election. His lab is at the forefront of unearthing and publicizing Russian disinformation campaigns.

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Brookie confirmed that his employer was among targets of Hurricane Panda but said there was no evidence the hacking attempts, which he said were unsuccessful, had anything to do with the 2020 election.

“We have every indication that this was an instance of cyber-espionage, information gathering, as opposed to electoral interference,” he said.

By contrast, Brookie said, “it’s pretty evident that the Russian attempts (Microsoft disclosed) were focused on electoral processes and groups working on that.”






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Microsoft noted a shift toward greater automation in Fancy Bear methods for trying to steal people’s log-in credentials, which previously largely relied on phishing. In recent months, the group has employed so-called brute-force attacks that barrage an account login with short rapid bursts of potential passwords.

Fancy Bear has also stepped up its use of the Tor anonymizing service to hide its hacking, Microsoft said.

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© 2020 The Canadian Press

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Bipartisan Politics | Politics and Public Affairs – Denison University

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But the ties that bind these four individuals are stronger than most. They, and several other Big Red alumni, are connected through Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan, full-service government and public affairs advocacy firm, founded by Forbes and his partner Dan Tate.

In today’s divisive political landscape it might be difficult to imagine that colleagues from opposite sides of the aisle can be, well, collegial. But according to Forbes, who has worked on Democratic campaigns since Al Gore’s presidential bid, that’s the whole point.

“People forget about the moderate factions in politics — and that’s where real work can be done,” says Forbes. So it made sense to build a firm that could work well with both parties and provide positive results for everyone.

And the work has become more complicated. “Lobbying has changed,” he says. “It’s not as much who you know – though that still matters. Today, you have to run a full-fledged campaign with traditional PR, social media, news updates. You have to make sure the people back home see the reason for what you are doing, to create that support before you move forward.”

So how did all these Denisonians find their way to Forbes Tate? You can credit another Denison tie, the Hilltoppers men’s a cappella group. Forbes was a member of the popular campus group, and several years ago a student Hilltopper reached out to him, struggling to figure out what to do for the summer. Forbes’ impulsive response, “Why don’t you come here?” became the beginning of an internship program that has brought scads of students from Denison’s hill to Capitol Hill.

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US vetted stars' politics to showcase Trump virus response – CKPGToday.ca

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The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesman Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesman for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.

Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.

According to one memo compiled by a subcontractor to Atlas Research, one of the firms hired by HHS, Caputo suggested a series of soundbites and taglines for the campaign, including “Helping the President will Help the Country.” The notes say that Caputo wanted the campaign to be “remarkable” and to rival Rosie the Riveter, the character who symbolized women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II against Germany.

“For us, the ‘enemy’ is the virus,” Caputo said, according to the memo.

The documents also show pushback from some of the federal employees leading the work, who removed Caputo from an email chain and thanked one of the contractors for dealing with a “challenging” environment.

The Democrat-led Oversight panel said Caputo was overstepping his bounds, interfering in work that is supposed to be done by contract officers at the department and politicizing what is supposed to be nonpartisan.

“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” said House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, both subcommittee chairmen, in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message.”

Azar put the entire project on hold earlier this month, telling the Oversight subcommittee led by Clyburn that it was being investigated internally.

“I have ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by our top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” Azar told the subcommittee, which is investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Because public health policy around the coronavirus pandemic has become so politically polarized, it’s unclear how well a confidence-building campaign from the government would play.

HHS officials acknowledge a major challenge to any campaign would involve finding trusted intermediaries to make the pitch to average Americans. On health care matters, people usually trust doctors first, not necessarily celebrities. And Trump has alienated much of the medical establishment with his dismissive comments about basic public health measures, such as wearing masks.

The 34-page “PSA Celebrity Tracker” compiled by Atlas Research and released by the committee does not say whether the celebrities were aware they were even being considered or if they had agreed to participate. The report says that no celebrities are now affiliated with the project but a handful did initially agree to participate.

Singer Marc Antony, who has been critical of Trump, pulled out after seeking an amendment to his contract to “ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”

Actor Dennis Quaid also initially agreed and then pulled out, according to a document from Atlas Research. In an Instagram video post last month titled “No good deed goes unpoliticized,” Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quaid said, noting that the interview was still available on his podcast.

Antony and Quaid were among just a few celebrities who were approved for the campaign, according to the documents. Others included TV health commentator Dr. Oz and singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter from the Democrats reads. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump Administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”

___

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press

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How Virus Politics Divided a Conservative Town in Wisconsin’s North – The New York Times

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MINOCQUA, Wis. — When coronavirus cases began to spike in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen kept his restaurant open and let customers and employees decide whether they wanted to wear masks.

Mr. Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, didn’t require other employees at his restaurant in Rhinelander to be tested after a waitress and a bartender contracted the virus because, he said, nobody from the local health department suggested it was necessary.

Kirk Bangstad, Mr. Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, took the opposite approach at the brewpub he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. He has served customers only outdoors, and when a teenage waiter became infected after attending a party, Mr. Bangstad shut down for a long weekend and required all employees to get tested.

Mr. Bangstad has since turned his entire campaign into a referendum on how Republicans have handled the coronavirus. On Facebook, he has served as a town shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that have disregarded state limits on seating capacity and don’t require masks.

With just days until the election, the contest for Mr. Swearingen’s Assembly seat in this lightly populated area in the Northwoods of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for the way coronavirus politics are playing out across America. Mr. Bangstad is unlikely to prevail in a Republican-heavy district that covers parts of four counties stretching south from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but his effort to make the campaign a referendum on the virus echoes that of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has sought to make President Trump’s handling of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential contest.

Mr. Bangstad, a 43-year-old Harvard-educated former professional opera singer, moved back to Wisconsin six years ago from Manhattan, where he was a technology consultant and served as the policy director for Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Like Mr. Biden, he has eschewed traditional campaigning. He has moved his entire effort online, including in email and on the Facebook page of his brewpub, the Minocqua Brewing Company.

But unlike the former vice president, Mr. Bangstad has made little effort to win over voters who aren’t already appalled by Republicans’ handling of the coronavirus. Many of them, he said, are being duped by false or misleading statements by the president and the conservative news media.

“A lot of them, I feel, haven’t been equipped with the tools of media literacy or critical thinking skills to be able to discern if they’re being told something that doesn’t quite jell or is not true,” he said during an interview this week at his shuttered restaurant overlooking Lake Minocqua.

Rob Swearingen, a Republican State Assembly member, does not require staff or customers to wear masks at his restaurant in Rhinelander.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Wisconsin’s 2020 campaigns are concluding while the state is in the midst of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, as the state set records for the most new cases and deaths, Gov. Tony Evers said Wisconsin faces an “urgent crisis” and urged citizens to stay home.

Oneida County, which includes Minocqua and Rhinelander, where Mr. Swearingen operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club and has lived his entire life, has a virus rate nearly twice the state average over the past two weeks.

Scott Haskins, whose wife, Pamela, is a waitress at the Al-Gen, is among the county’s recent fatalities. Ms. Haskins contracted the virus after working a restaurant shift in mid-September and was hospitalized in early October. Mr. Haskins, 63, checked into the hospital with the virus four days after his wife, according to his daughter, Kelly Schulz.

Two days later, Mr. Haskins suffered a stroke and died.

“The day after my dad passed, Governor Evers put in the 25 percent capacity limit, and they weren’t abiding by it,” Ms. Schulz said of the Al-Gen. “People were posting pictures of themselves there on Facebook and it was pretty busy for a Friday night.”

Republicans who control the state legislature this month successfully sued Mr. Evers to overturn the capacity limits on bars and restaurants he ordered. In Oneida County, local sheriffs and town police departments weren’t enforcing them anyway.

Before winning election to the Assembly, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was the president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the powerful lobbying group for the state’s bars. He fought the state’s efforts to ban smoking indoors at businesses, lift the drinking age to 21 from 18 and increase the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

He said his restaurant is not responsible for employees who caught the coronavirus. No one from the local health department ever called with questions, he said, and no contact tracers contacted the restaurant. Mr. Swearingen said he has not had a test himself.

“There’s been no connection to the restaurant to all these cases,” he said during an interview in the dining room of the Al-Gen, which is bedecked with taxidermied heads of deer and black bears. “These people are part-time, coming from different jobs and different things.”

Of all the places where Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods may have been the most neglected. Not only did Hillary Clinton skip Wisconsin altogether, county Democrats in this region didn’t even have yard signs to distribute, not that there was much demand for them.

Mrs. Clinton was a “polarizing’’ candidate, said Matt Michalsen, a high school social studies teacher who ran against Mr. Swearingen in 2016. “Personally, did I support her? No.”

Four years later, Mr. Bangstad has few expectations that he will win. He sees his campaign largely as an effort to increase Democratic turnout for Mr. Biden and cut into Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing attention on the impact of the coronavirus on northern Wisconsin.

Mr. Bangstad wrapped the side of his restaurant in a giant Biden-Harris sign that attracted the ire of the Oneida County Board, which sent a letter informing him that it exceeded the allowable size of 32 square feet. After Mr. Bangstad used the fracas to raise money and get more attention for himself in the local press, the board backed down.

At the same time, the Biden campaign and local Democrats have put far more resources into northern Wisconsin than they did four years ago. There are twice as many organizers focused on the area than in 2016. And though the Clinton campaign swore off yard signs as an unnecessary annoyance, the state party has made efforts to get them in every yard that would take one.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“We distributed approximately 50 Hillary yard signs four years ago, and we’re at more than 1,200 so far for Joe,” said Jane Nicholson, the party chairwoman in Vilas County, just north of Oneida County.

There’s some evidence that Mr. Biden is making up ground. A poll taken for Mr. Bangstad’s campaign this month found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden in the district by five percentage points — a far cry from his 25-point margin of victory in 2016. The same survey found Mr. Swearingen ahead by 12 points, less than half his 26-point margin over Mr. Michalsen four years ago.

Mr. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes statewide. His gap in Mr. Swearingen’s district alone was 14,000 votes.

“If we’re in the low 40s there, that means that we have blocked Trump’s path to pulling in the votes that he’d need to cancel out other areas of the state,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The Assembly race has engendered hurt feelings and worsened political divisions in Minocqua, a town of about 4,000 full-time residents. Down the street from the Minocqua Brewing Company, Tracy Lin Grigus, a Trump supporter who owns the Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr. Bangstad’s attempts to shame local businesses.

“On his Facebook, he’s calling all of us up here idiots, like a mini Joe Biden,’’ said Ms. Grigus, who doesn’t wear a mask in her store and doesn’t ask her customers to do so. “It’s insulting to people that share the space with him and other business owners. He’s like the only one in this town and surrounding towns that went this far.”

Across Oneida Street, the main drag through Minocqua’s small downtown, Casie Oldenhoff, an assistant manager at the Monkey Business T-shirt shop, where signs instruct customers to wear a mask, said Mr. Trump was to blame for the current wave of the pandemic.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“He’s just not taking care of us,” Ms. Oldenhoff said. “He doesn’t care about what’s going on with the pandemic.”

Mr. Swearingen said he had little doubt that Mr. Trump would do just as well in the Northwoods on Tuesday as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is higher, he said, as evidenced by the regular boat and car parades adorned with Trump flags and carrying young men concerned foremost about a Biden administration taking away their guns.

But he said he had never been involved in a campaign as ugly as his own this year.

“We’ve been targeted by my opponent as a den of Covid and all sorts of rumors in Facebook,’’ he said. “I’ve never quite had to fight against Facebook in an election. He went after a couple of other bars in the area, and one of the bar owners was livid that that bar was on the list. It’s like, ‘Well, who are these people? It’s the mask police or something.’”

For Mr. Bangstad, shaming Mr. Swearingen and other Republicans who have fought against public health guidelines is exactly the point.

“If you’re a citizen in this state, and there’s one branch of government that’s trying to keep people healthy from Covid, and you have the legislative branch and the judicial branch trying to stymie him every single time he does it, it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said. “As a Wisconsinite, I’m just completely ashamed.”

Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.

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