Press Releases

Senator Carper Requests Information from Twitter CEO on Covert Operations of Russian State Actors

Seeks assistance identifying possible efforts by Russian state actors to influence public opinion and undermine the American political process

Sep 08 2016

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, requested information from Twitter, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey in light of recent reports that Russian state actors may be engaging in covert operations aimed at undermining the political processes in the United States. Senator Carper asked Twitter for assistance with determining if malicious actors are conducting these operations on its platform and how it is working to reduce these “social” cyberattacks, which are made possible through the use of “bots” – automated and often false accounts – that allow the spread of disinformation or propaganda.

“I write today regarding troubling reports that Russian state actors may be engaging in covert operations aimed at undermining the political process in the United States. I ask for your assistance with identifying the nature and extent of any such operations on your platform and any steps that may be necessary to protect our democracy from these potential threats,” wrote Senator Carper.

In the wake of reports indicating that the Russian Federal Security Service and Russian military intelligence may have been involved in the recent cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee, public reports indicated that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials are also reviewing whether Russia is engaged in other active measures to influence the American political process. In his letter, Senator Carper requested information regarding Twitter’s efforts to track and address the use of its platform by potential Russian actors.

“If these reports are accurate, such activities raise serious concerns about the interference of foreign actors in the American political process during the upcoming election,” Senator Carper continued. “Cybersecurity remains one of our nation’s biggest security challenges, and attempts by foreign state actors to covertly interfere the American election through ‘social’ cyberattacks and other efforts would be unacceptable.”

Last month, Senator Carper wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson regarding recent reports that foreign actors may have been involved in cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and other American political organizations. Senator Carper commended Secretary Johnson’s efforts to consider designating election systems as critical infrastructure and urged him to quickly provide best practices and technical support to state and local election officials that request assistance with the cybersecurity of their election systems. Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Division also issued an alert regarding possible cyberattacks of state election systems by foreign actors.

 

The text of the letter to Mr. Dorsey can be found below and in PDF form here.

September 8, 2016

Dear Mr. Dorsey:

I write today regarding troubling reports that Russian state actors may be engaging in covert operations aimed at undermining the political process in the United States. I ask for your assistance in identifying the nature and extent of any such operations on your platform and any steps that may be necessary to protect our democracy from these potential threats.

As has been publicly reported, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials are reviewing whether Russia is engaged in active measures to influence the American political process, including through cyberattacks on election systems and propaganda campaigns. This review comes in the wake of reports indicating that the Russian Federal Security Service and Russian military intelligence may have been involved in the recent cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and other American political organizations. If these reports are accurate, such activities raise serious concerns about the interference of foreign actors in the American political process during the upcoming election.

Public reports also suggest that Russian state actors may be involved in a coordinated effort to influence public opinion through the malicious use of Twitter and other social networking services. These “social” cyberattacks are made possible through the proliferation of “bots,” automated and often false accounts controlled by a single entity, that pollute information streams by generating messages that appear to come from many different users. According to Twitter’s past filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, approximately 16 million Twitter users or less—or 5 percent of all users—are false or spam accounts, and the actual number of false or spam accounts could be higher than this estimate.

Indeed, the use of bots on social networking services that allow malicious actors to spread disinformation is well-documented in political campaigns outside the United States. Accordingly, the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has recognized the risk of this activity on social networking services pose to the democratic process and has sponsored efforts to create analytical tools to detect and address covert attempts to manipulate public opinion.

In the past, Twitter has taken substantial steps to address other types of malicious actors on its platform, including suspending 360,000 accounts since the middle of 2015 to enforce its prohibition on violent threats and the promotion of terrorism. This work is commendable and it is something that I know poses unique technical and resource challenges as you and your team combat violent extremism while maintaining an open platform for legitimate users to share their views freely.

Cybersecurity remains one of our nation’s biggest security challenges, and attempts by foreign state actors to covertly interfere the American election through “social” cyberattacks and other efforts would be unacceptable. To better understand the possible use of bots by malicious actors on your platform, I ask that you please provide the following information by September 30, 2016:

  1. Please describe the methodology Twitter uses to estimate the number of false or spam accounts and the types of judgment used in this determination. Please also describe whether Twitter has the ability to track or estimate the number of false or spam accounts controlled by potential Russian state actors.
  2. Would efforts of Russian state actors to create serial or bulk accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes be prohibited by Twitter’s terms of service? If so, please describe the efforts of Twitter to address this problem and actions you’ve taken to suspend or terminate these types of accounts.
  3. Please describe how Twitter invests its resources to reduce bots on the platform, including any bots you suspect may be controlled by Russian state actors, if any.

In addition, I ask that you make representatives from your company available to brief my staff on this issue. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

            With best personal regards, I am

                                                            Sincerely yours,

 

                                                            Tom Carper

                                                            Ranking Member

cc:        The Honorable Ron Johnson

            Chairman