7 min read

In the US Senate select committee hearing Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg has put forward Facebook’s testimony to the US Senate select committee on Wednesday, 5th September 2018. Twitter and Google also have their side of testimonies to be offered in the hearing.

Facebook has had a tumultuous couple of years centered around the misuse of its platform and abuse of its users’ data and privacy by advertisers, political entities and foreign bad actors.  The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one example. Another is where Russians used Facebook to meddle with the 2016 US Presidential elections.

Sheryl Sandberg in her testimony started with an apologizing statement, “We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us. This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love.”

She had also highlighted the efforts taken by Facebook to keep its community safe and the user services secure, which include:

  • Using artificial intelligence to help find bad content and locate bad actors.
  • Shutting down fake accounts and reducing the spread of false news.
  • Set up new ad transparency policies, ad content restrictions, and documentation requirements for political ad buyers.
  • Better anticipation of risks and working closely with law enforcement and its industry peers to share information and make progress together.
  • Removed hundreds of Pages and accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior— meaning they misled others about who they were and what they were doing.

Sandberg further touched upon these highlights in detail and presented ways in which Facebook is looking forward to combat the issues. She said, “At its best, Facebook plays a positive role in our democratic process—and we know we have a responsibility to protect that process on our service. We’re investing for the long term because security is never a finished job. Our adversaries are determined, creative, and well-funded. But we are even more determined—and we will continue to fight back.”

Facebook assesses past Russian attempts to influence elections

Sheryl said that, before the election day in November 2016, Facebook committee detected and mitigated several threats from actors–such as the APT28 activity– that had ties to Russia. They also recorded new behaviour such as the creation of fake IDs which were linked to a Facebook page named DCLeaks, which was later removed by them.

Read more: DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0: How hackers used social engineering to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections

Post the 2016 elections, Facebook found that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian entity located in St. Petersburg, Russia, had used coordinated networks of fake Pages and accounts to interfere in the election.

Sheryl stated, “Around 470 fake Pages and accounts associated with the IRA spent approximately $100,000 on about 3,500 Facebook and Instagram ads between June 2015 and August 2017. Our analysis showed that these accounts used these ads to promote roughly 120 Facebook Pages that they had set up, which had posted more than 80,000 pieces of content between January 2015 and August 2017. We shut down the accounts and Pages we identified at the time that were still active. The Instagram accounts we deleted had posted about 120,000 pieces of content.”

In April of this year, Facebook took down more than 270 additional Pages and accounts controlled by the IRA and it continues to monitor its service for abuse and share information with law enforcement and others in the industry about these threats.

Facebook combats Foreign election interference AND also advances on Election Integrity

Facebook has more than doubled the number of people working on safety and security and now have over 20,000 people. They review reports in over 50 languages, 24 hours a day. Use of better machine learning technology and artificial intelligence have also enabled highly proactive identification of abuses.

Sheryl mentioned that Facebook focusses on removing Fake Accounts. She added, “One of the main ways we identify and stop foreign actors is by proactively detecting and removing fake accounts, since they’re the source of much of the interference we see.”

Some important measures Facebook is taking are:

Use of both automated and manual review to detect and deactivate fake accounts. These systems analyze distinctive account characteristics and prioritize signals that are more difficult for bad actors to disguise. It has blocked millions of attempts to register fake accounts every day. It has globally disabled 1.27 billion fake accounts from October 2017 to March 2018. By using technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computer vision, Facebook is proactively detecting more bad actors and take action more quickly.

Read More: Four 2018 Facebook patents to battle fake news and improve news feed

Tackling False News: Facebook has partnered with third-party fact-checking organizations to limit the spread of articles they rate as false, and it further disrupts the economic incentives for traffickers of misinformation. It has also invested in news literacy programs and work to inform people by providing more context on the stories it sees.

Increasing Ad Transparency. Facebook has taken strong steps to prevent abuse and increase transparency in advertising. They ensure all politics and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. are clearly labeled with a “Paid for by” disclosure at the top of the ad so people can see who is paying for them. This is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad.

Enforcing Compliance with Federal Law. Facebook’s compliance team maintains a Political Activities and Lobbying Policy that is available to all employees. This Policy is covered in its Code of Conduct training for all employees and includes guidelines to ensure compliance with the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Suspicious Activity Reporting. Facebook has designed certain processes to identify inauthentic and suspicious activity. It also maintains a sanctions compliance program to screen advertisers, partners, vendors, and others using its payment products. Its payments subsidiaries file Suspicious Activity Reports on developers of certain apps and take other steps as appropriate, including denying such apps access to the facebook platform.

Facebook defending against targeted hacking

Sheryl Sandberg also highlighted how Facebook is strengthening its defenses against a broader set of threats. Some of the defenses include:

  • Building AI systems to detect and stop attempts to send malicious content.
  • Providing customizable security and privacy features, including two-factor authentication options and marketing to encourage people to adopt them.
  • Sending notifications to individuals if they have been targeted by sophisticated attackers, with custom recommendations depending on the threat model.
  • Sending proactive notifications to people who have not yet been targeted, but may be at risk based on the behavior of particular malicious actors.
  • Deploying AI systems to monitor login patterns and detect the signs of a successful account takeover campaign.

Facebook working with government entities, industry, and civil society

Sheryl mentioned in her testimony, “We have worked successfully with the DOJ, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies to address a wide variety of threats to our platform, and we are actively engaged with DHS and the FBI’s new Foreign Influence Task Force focused on election integrity.”

Facebook has also partnered with cybersecurity firms such as FireEye, which informed it about a network of Pages and accounts originating from Iran that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior. Based on which, Facebook started an investigation and identified and removed additional accounts and Pages from the network.

The FB security team regularly conducts internal reviews to monitor for state-sponsored threats that are not publicly disclosed, for security reasons. They monitor and assess thousands of account details, such as location information and connections to others on Facebook.

Sheryl also added, “As part of official investigations, government officials sometimes request data about people who use Facebook. We have an easily accessible online portal and processes in place to handle these government requests, and we disclose account records in accordance with our terms of service and applicable law. We also have law enforcement response teams available around the clock to respond to emergency requests.”

Facebook also participated in discussions with governments around the world at key events such as the Munich Security Conference and CyCon, which is organized by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence.

Sheryl Sandberg concluded her testimony by saying that, the Facebook community is learning from what happened and is improving. She said, “When we find bad actors, we will block them. When we find content that violates our policies, we will take it down. And when our attackers use new techniques, we’ll share them to improve our collective defense. We are even more determined than our adversaries, and we will continue to fight back.”

Here’s the link to Sheryl Sandberg’s complete testimony to the US Senate Committee.

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