Lawmakers begin oversight of cyber campaigns that target veterans, military members

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Earlier this year, the group Vietnam Veterans of America published the results of a two-year investigation showing hackers and cyber criminals from Russia and elsewhere are specifically targeting veterans and military members.

And while VVA has generally gotten a cold shoulder from federal agencies, Congress is starting to take notice. On Wednesday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held its first hearing on the issue, the same day 20 senators sent a letter to the VA secretary asking how his department is responding to VVA’s findings.

The report, published in September, documented a wide variety of ways overseas groups have been targeting military and veterans populations. For example, back in 2015, numerous military spouses got threatening messages that appeared to be from ISIS. It turned out they were actually sent from a Russian government troll farm.

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But VVA says many of the online operations use impersonation schemes for other reasons — including to make money by soliciting donations that appear to be going to legitimate veterans groups, to plant the seeds for espionage operations, and to spread disinformation in the veterans community.

In another example offered by Kristofer Goldsmith, VVA’s chief investigator, trolls posing as a veterans group circulated a legitimate, but old news story on a fake veterans’ site, changing the date in a way that falsely suggested veterans’ benefits were about to be cut.

“That has a profound effect on the real health of our members when they see a report like that and they think, ‘Oh my God, in a couple months I could be homeless if this budget passes,’” he told the House committee. “To be re-exposed over and over and over again to that sense of panic can exacerbate things like PTSD and physical health conditions. That’s what really led VVA down this path into this investigation.”

Exact comparisons are hard to calculate, but it’s clear that veterans are targeted by malevolent internet campaigns much more often than the general population, said Vlad Barash, the science director for Graphika, a company that tracks and studies online influence and disinformation campaigns.

He said the information operations target veterans with “surgical precision.”

“They’re targeted because our veterans are influential members of American communities. They’re trusted, they’re respected,” he said. “But they are also vulnerable in the context of the digital divide. And when they are looking for employment and they’re being targeted by malware, when they are looking to establish new relationships and being targeted by scams, this breaks down the fragile social fabric that they are starting to build as they return from military service and build a life at home.”

VVA acknowledges social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have made big strides, but said the companies need to do more to spot fake accounts and proactively spotlight ones that belong to legitimate veterans organizations and other sources. The organization also says the companies need to share information with one another when they spot suspicious activity.

Facebook and Twitter officials told Congress they take the problem seriously, but that the more sophisticated online actors have no problem creating new accounts almost as quickly as old ones are taken offline.

Kevin Kane, Twitter’s public policy manager, said the most effective way to make a real dent is with a combination of human investigators and AI algorithms that look for common patterns.

“We look at the behavior behind these accounts, and that is how we effectively address this issue at scale. That’s something that we’ve invested in heavily,” he said. “It’s resulted in approximately 97 million challenges from Twitter just for the first half of this year alone. It’s looking at the signals behind the accounts as well as potential coordinated behavior, which is a very strong signal that accounts are engaging in suspicious activity.”

Facebook says it’s used a similar approach to spotting overseas impersonators. Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of security policy, said Facebook removed 1.3 billion fake accounts in just the last quarter, but most of those were likely set up as fraudulent money-making operations, not for government-sponsored political influence or disinformation campaigns.

“The majority of the activity that we see online is fraudulent – motivated in order to make money. We have very strict controls internally so that we only claim that something is state-backed when we can prove it,” he said. “And the reason is, the operations from Russia, Iran, and elsewhere, part of their goal is to make themselves appear more powerful than they are and make us think that every instance of misinformation is actually a foreign operation. They do that because it fundamentally undermines our trust in the conversations we’re having, and it leads to this phenomenon today where people think that anyone who disagrees with them or they distrust online may be state backed. So we’re very careful.”

Lack of federal response

VVA said the federal government needs to do more, too. The organization has recommended, for example, that the Department of Veterans Affairs take a more active role in protecting veterans from cyber threats, including by appointing a new deputy assistant secretary for “cyber-health.”

But so far, Goldsmith said VVA hasn’t heard anything from the department – or anyone else in the executive branch for that matter.

“The FBI has not responded to any of our letters, any of our press releases, or to this report,” he said. “We haven’t received a response from any federal agency whatsoever. Not the VA, not the DoD, not the FEC. No one.”

But Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the FBI has agreed to give the committee a classified briefing on the issue, and that he plans to continue to pursue the matter well beyond Wednesday’s hearing.

“Most importantly, we need to understand what loopholes, roadblocks, and barriers are needed or impeding more effective enforcement and protections, and perhaps identify an opportunity for legislative action to address any policy gaps,” he said.

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