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Warner: U.S. Unprepared to Combat Weaponized Social Media

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) warned a Common Sense Kids Action conference in Washington Wednesday (Feb. 7) that the country is still not adequately prepared for attacks from the internet on its political process.

It was a variation on a theme he has been sounding for some time

Warner is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and actively involved in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The senator said that the paid online ads in that disinformation campaign were just the tip of the iceberg, and that nothing Russia was doing stopped after November 2016.

Warner, a former wireless exec, was speaking at Common Sense Media's Truth About Tech conference. The senator's truth was that he has learned first-hand from that investigation that while the country has been living in a kind of bubble of celebration of all the "iconic positives" of an interconnected world, the country is starting to see the dark underbelly, which comprises the dilemmas and dangers and unintended consequences of that world.

Warner focused on social media manipulation and the challenges of the interconnected internet of things (IoT).

He said the weaponization of social media by Russia and others for harassment, fraud and disinformation has challenged the promise of that technology, adding that a year and a half ago he could not have imagined how comprehensive Russia's misuse of social platforms was.

Warner said he was not sure the country had a handle on it yet.

He pointed to the thousands of disinformation accounts and groups and pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and others. "You name it and there were agents of misinformation active," he said. 

Warner said paid ads were used, but that they were not the major focus -- that was the creation of fake accounts masquerading as Americans or organizations. He used the example of two Texas sites set up by Russian bots, one a right-wing site promoting secession, and one purporting to represent Texas Muslims.

One site warned of Sharia law being imposed and called on followers to protest at a certain Mosque. The other site warned of radical protestors planning the mosque visit. Had the Houston police not shown up, he said, there could have been another Charlottesville given the hundreds who had gathered there. He said it had all been run by a single bot out of St. Petersburg, Russia.

Related: Warner Says FCC Should Clarify ISP Power to Combat Hacks

Warner said the use of social media was providing purveyors of disinformation--fake news, stolen e-mails and the like--incredible bang for the buck. He said all the money that had been spent on trying to affect the U.S. elections, the French elections and the Dutch elections together was less than the cost of one U.S. fighter plane.

Related: Data Breach Bill Introduced

He said that weaponization remains a "serious national security threat." And while Facebook took down 50,000 accounts related to the French election, Warner said, it had only found 470 related to the U.S. election in 2016. "Facebook has some more work to do," he added.

While Congress is currently debating boosting the Defense Department budget by tens of billions of dollars, Warner suggested the country was not prepared for wars that would be much more about cyber disinformation.

On the issue of IoT, he suggested there were great opportunities but also great vulnerabilities, citing a NIST estimate that for every 1,000 lines of code, there were 25 errors. He said that doesn't mean they are all vulnerabilities, but the danger was illustrated in the 2016 Mirai botnet attack when IoT devices were hacked and a portion of the digital economy brought down.

He also pointed to the vulnerabilities in connected toys.

Warner said they were all issues that the government can't punt on. "Every week we don't act," he said, "the problem gets worse."

(Photo via Senator Mark Warner's FlickrImage taken on Jan. 9, 2018 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 16x9 aspect ratio.)