The social media ‘coordination’ thread of the Trump-Putin campaign investigation

CNN reports that the FBI’s criminal probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is increasingly touching on the multiple roles of senior White House adviser Jared Kushner on both the Trump campaign and the Trump transition team.

Points of focus that pertain to Kushner include the Trump campaign’s 2016 data analytics operation. FBI Russia investigation looking at Kushner role:

The FBI has collected data on computer bots, programs that perform repetitive functions like searches, allegedly linked to Russia that helped target and push negative information on Hillary Clinton and positive information on Donald Trump through Facebook and other social media, the officials say.

Federal investigators have been taking a closer look at the Trump campaign’s data analytics operation, which was supervised by Kushner, officials say, and are examining whether Russian operatives used people associated with the campaign — wittingly or unwittingly — to try to help Russia’s own data targeting.

We now know that this did, in fact, occur. GOP operative colluded with Guccifer 2.0 – Russian stolen info was used by the GOP.

Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, worked with and helped oversee the campaign’s data operation contractors based in San Antonio, Texas.

Kushner has described how, beginning last June, he began testing the use of data targeting to sell Trump merchandise. Eventually, according to a November Forbes magazine profile, the data operation helped the Trump campaign figure out where the candidate’s message was resonating in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, places where conventional political wisdom suggested they would be wasting time and money.

“I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner told Forbes.

A source connected to the data analytics group said the team has not been contacted about any Russia related probe. “We have not been contacted by anyone and don’t know anything formally about an investigation,” the source said.

Forbes recently published portions of its November interview not included in its original article. Jared Kushner In His Own Words On The Trump Data Operation The FBI Is Reportedly Probing. The first bullet point is of interest:

So what does Jared Kushner have to say about the formidable data operation, which Forbes has previously said tipped the election to Trump? In November, Forbes went into deep detail on this topic with Kushner for a cover story on the little-known facet of the campaign. And Kushner had far more to say than we could include that story. Below are the never-before-published quotes from Kushner, on the Trump campaign and its data strategy.

  • We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences. After the primary, we started ramping up because we knew that doing a national campaign is different than doing a primary campaign. That was when we formalized the system because we had to ramp up for digital fundraising. We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff. Doing it state by state is not that hard. But scaling is a very, very hard thing. They gave me a lot of their subcontractors and I built in Austin a data hub that would complement the RNC’s data hub. We had about 100 people in that office, which nobody knew about, until towards the end. We used that as the nerve center that drove a lot of the deployment of our ground game resources.

As Time magazine reported in its cover story last week, Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America:

Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.

The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.

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Social media companies are beginning to realize that they need to take action. Facebook issued a report in April 2017 acknowledging that much disinformation had been spread on its pages and saying it had expanded its security. Google says it has seen no evidence of Russian manipulation of its search results but has updated its algorithms just in case. Twitter claims it has diminished cyberpropaganda by tweaking its algorithms to block cleverly designed bots. “Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” the company said in a statement.

A member of the Federal Election Commission is calling on the agency to investigate whether Russian agents paid for Facebook ads to spread damaging stories about Hillary Clinton ahead of last fall’s presidential election. FEC member urges escalated Trump-Russia inquiry:

“I think there is potential there for finding a violation, but I don’t want to suggest that I have prejudged anything that could potentially come before me,” said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee to the commission.

Her assertion comes as agency staff is already moving to investigate a related complaint filed in December by a pair of watchdog groups against President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, according to two sources familiar with the agency’s handling of the complaint. They said that, if the investigation proceeds apace, agency staff could be expected to incorporate the recent revelations about Facebook ads into their fact-finding.

* * *

The commissioners in October unanimously agreed to prioritize investigations into complaints about foreign spending. And in some ways, the FEC’s inquiry into Trump and Russia could offer greater transparency, accountability and focus than the congressional or law enforcement investigations.

* * *

The FEC is charged exclusively with monitoring and enforcing the Federal Election Campaign Act. It bars foreign nationals, companies or governments from donating to U.S. campaign committees or from making expenditures “for the purpose of influencing” an election, and it also prohibits campaigns from coordinating with outside entities, including foreign ones.

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“The FEC has broad investigative powers to subpoena witnesses and documents, and compel testimony under oath,” said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech for People, one of the watchdog groups that filed the complaint that the FEC is investigating against Trump and Russia. “I don’t want to suggest that the FEC is a model of rapid enforcement, but this is possibly the single most important campaign finance investigation in the agency’s entire history, and this is its opportunity to rise to the challenge.”

The complaint by Fein’s group and the Campaign for Accountability alleges that Russia violated the foreign money ban when its state-run media outlets and social-media operations disseminated stories intended to boost Trump and damage Clinton. And the complaint contends that there is enough evidence for the FEC to investigate whether Trump’s associates violated campaign finance laws by coordinating with the Russians, which would run afoul of the coordination prohibition.

On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee asked President Trump’s political organization to gather and produce all Russia-related documents, emails and phone records going back to his campaign’s launch in June 2015. Senate Intelligence Committee requests Trump campaign documents:

The letter from the Senate arrived at Trump’s campaign committee last week and was addressed to the group’s treasurer. Since then, some former staffers have been notified and asked to cooperate, the people said. They were not authorized to speak publicly.

The demand follows a Senate request months earlier for the campaign committee to preserve documents.

Dozens of former staffers are expected to be contacted in the coming days to make sure they are aware of what they are required to produce and how to submit those documents, the people added.

The letter was signed by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Senate committee’s chairman, and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat. Spokespeople for Burr and Warner declined to comment.

The request to Trump’s political operatives represents the first time that Trump’s official campaign structure has been drawn into the Senate committee’s ongoing bipartisan investigation. That investigation is separate from the federal probe being led by the Justice Department’s special counsel, former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III.

The Senate should also request copies of all hard drives and all electronic data and meta-data. Maybe we will get an answer to the still unexplained computer server connection between the Trump campaign and Russian banks. Sources: FBI investigation continues into ‘odd’ computer link between Russian bank and Trump Organization:

Federal investigators and computer scientists continue to examine whether there was a computer server connection between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank, sources close to the investigation tell CNN.

Questions about the possible connection were widely dismissed four months ago. But the FBI’s investigation remains open, the sources said, and is in the hands of the FBI’s counterintelligence team — the same one looking into Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election.

One U.S. official said investigators find the server relationship “odd” and are not ignoring it. But the official said there is still more work for the FBI to do. Investigators have not yet determined whether a connection would be significant.

* * *

The story — of a possible connection between computer servers — is a strange tale because there are no specific allegations of wrongdoing and only vague technical evidence.

Internet data shows that last summer, a computer server owned by Russia-based Alfa Bank repeatedly looked up the contact information for a computer server being used by the Trump Organization — far more than other companies did, representing 80% of all lookups to the Trump server.

It’s unclear if the Trump Organization server itself did anything in return. No one has produced evidence that the servers actually communicated.

Slate and The New York Times were first to report the unusual server activity.

The Times said the FBI had concluded there could be an “innocuous explanation.” And cybersecurity experts told CNN this isn’t how two entities would communicate if they wanted to keep things secret.

But for those who have studied the data, the activity could suggest an intent to communicate by email during a period of time when ties between the Trump Organization and Russia are being closely scrutinized because of Russia’s alleged involvement in hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.

This issue intrigued a dozen computer researchers at a recent business conference in Washington, D.C. that pulled together the world’s top network operators, the ones who help run the internet. To them, it’s a strange coincidence that merits further scrutiny.

Another computer researcher, Richard Clayton of Cambridge University, said it’s just plain weird.

“It’s not so much a smoking gun as a faint whiff of smoke a long way away. Maybe there’s something else going on. It’s hard to tell,” said Clayton, who has independently examined the scant evidence available.

What is known:

Last year, a small group of computer scientists obtained internet traffic records from the complex system that serves as the internet’s phone book. Access to these records is reserved for highly trusted cybersecurity firms and companies that provide this lookup service.

These signals were captured as they traveled along the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). These leaked records show that Alfa Bank servers repeatedly looked up the unique internet address of a particular Trump Organization computer server in the United States.

In the computer world, it’s the equivalent of looking up someone’s phone number — over and over again. While there isn’t necessarily a phone call, it usually indicates an intention to communicate, according to several computer scientists.

What puzzled them was why a Russian bank was repeatedly looking up the contact information for mail1.trump-email.com.

Publicly available internet records show that address, which was registered to the Trump Organization, points to an IP address that lives on an otherwise dull machine operated by a company in the tiny rural town of Lititz, Pennsylvania.

From May 4 until September 23, the Russian bank looked up the address to this Trump corporate server 2,820 times — more lookups than the Trump server received from any other source.

As noted, Alfa Bank alone represents 80% of the lookups, according to these leaked internet records. Far back in second place, with 714 such lookups, was a company called Spectrum Health.

Spectrum is a medical facility chain led by Dick DeVos, the husband of Betsy DeVos, who was appointed by Trump as U.S. education secretary.

Together, Alfa and Spectrum accounted for 99% of the lookups.

This server behavior alarmed one computer expert who had privileged access to this technical information last year. That person, who remains anonymous and goes by the moniker “Tea Leaves,” obtained this information from internet traffic meant to remain private. It is unclear where Tea Leaves worked or how Tea Leaves obtained access to the information.

“The corporations involved have different theories to explain the server activity. But they haven’t provided proof — and they don’t agree.” “CNN reached out to the Trump Organization with detailed technical questions but has not received answers.”

Now it is time for the Trump Organization to answer those questions to the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and to produce the electronic evidence.

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