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Nov 18, 2020

Axios Codebook

Hello, and welcome to the newest edition of Codebook. This week, we’re thinking about the bravery and dedication of America’s health care workers.

Today's newsletter is 1,415 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How Trump chose disinformation over his own cyber chief

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump, in announcing the latest in a line of post-election firings, embraced unsubstantiated claims of election hacking over one of his own top cybersecurity officials.

Why it matters: This is only the latest example of an ongoing attempt to purge officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the president. But the potential decapitation of cyber leadership at the Department of Homeland Security could also create expertise gaps during the presidential transition period, making the country less secure.

Driving the news: Trump announced on Twitter Tuesday night that Christopher Krebs, who ran DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), had been fired.

  • CISA helps protect critical infrastructure, and Krebs has led high-profile messaging campaigns aimed at increasing public confidence in the security of the U.S. presidential election.

Between the lines: Trump was quite clear in his tweet that the termination was due to Krebs' recent assertion that the 2020 election was the most secure in the history of the country.

  • Trump said that claim was "highly inaccurate" and that the election was in fact chock-full of "massive improprieties and fraud — including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, 'glitches' in the voting machines which changed votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more."

Reality check: There's no evidence for any of those claims, which range from misleading statements, such as observers being denied access, to completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, such as the claim about voting machines.

  • Trump's own tweets on the matter quickly received labels from Twitter noting that the claims have been disputed. The labels direct users to more information about the rarity of voter fraud in the U.S.
  • The president’s legal challenges to election results have also failed to deliver evidence of widespread fraud and have been repeatedly turned back in court.

The big picture: Krebs is widely respected by politicians from both parties as well as outside cybersecurity circles, and news of his potential firing, expected since at least last week, was met with loud public resistance. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf also refused President Trump’s orders to fire Krebs, according to the New York Post.

What they're saying: "Honored to serve. We did it right," Krebs tweeted after the news broke.

  • Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and Jim Langevin, co-founder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, both slammed the move in statements. Schiff called it "pathetic," while Langevin said it "opens the door for our adversaries to target us in cyberspace."
  • GOP Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement, “Chris Krebs did a really good job — as state election officials all across the nation will tell you — and he obviously should not be fired.”
  • Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is reportedly in the running to be President-elect Biden’s director of national security, said, “We should be empowering Chris and his team to do more, not punishing them for their doing their job.”

The Krebs firing comes on the heels of two other DHS officials — Bryan Ware, CISA’s assistant director, and Valerie Boyd, DHS’ assistant secretary for international affairs — being forced to resign for their perceived disloyalty to Trump.

  • Those firings were carried out by John McEntee, the White House aide who has also spearheaded the recent Pentagon purge.

The bottom line: Trump's "firing of a top notch cybersecurity leader in [Krebs] is not leadership," tweeted Jamil Jaffer, a former senior House intel staffer who served under former Republican Intel Chair Mike Rogers. "It is an embarrassment and an act of cowardice. I say this as a committed conservative who has served under four elected Republicans, including in the Bush White House. Enough."

2. U.S. military buying app tracking data from private services

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is quietly purchasing access to vast troves of real-time location and user data from commercial apps that focus on everything from dating services for Muslims to weather reports, according to a new Vice investigation.

Why it matters: Though legal, the purchase of these data tracking services by the U.S. military raises serious civil liberties and privacy questions — as well as questions about just how the military is employing this data.

Details: The military has obtained these data troves through the companies Babel Street and X-Mode, which provide data-tracking services that collect information harvested by apps.

  • This is the first known instance of these types of services being used by the U.S. military, though American law enforcement agencies have purchased similar data streams in the past.

Between the lines: Many of the data streams included in the services purchased by SOCOM are from apps catering to largely Muslim audiences, reports Vice. A popular Muslim dating app and prayer app, as well as apps focusing on Iran, Egypt and Turkey, are included in the tracking data, writes Vice.

  • The focus on apps for Muslim audiences “is notable considering that the United States has waged a decades-long war on predominantly Muslim terror groups in the Middle East,” reports Vice. SOCOM is responsible for many leading-edge U.S. counterterrorism operations worldwide.
  • Prayer app Muslim Pro “reminds users when to pray and what direction Mecca is in relation to the user's current location.” The app has been downloaded more than 98 million times worldwide.

What they’re saying: A spokesperson for SOCOM confirmed to Vice that it had purchased these data services, though said that it was only using the information in service of its operations abroad.

3. At Senate's tech CEO inquest, parties are worlds apart

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats and Republicans both want to rein in perceived abuses by Silicon Valley, but a Tuesday Senate hearing to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey showed the two parties operating in mirror universes, Axios' Kyle Daly and Ashley Gold report.

Why it matters: The distance between the parties' diagnoses of the tech industry's trespasses makes it harder than ever to imagine how they might find common ground to pass the meaningful new tech legislation they both say they want.

Driving the news: Republicans had originally convened the Senate Judiciary Committee's four-hour-plus hearing over the platforms' handling of the New York Post's Hunter Biden story. But the session ended up focusing on broader concerns over how tech firms treat political speech.

Republicans said repeatedly that tech companies were staffed by liberal employees who enforce policies that are biased against conservatives. They also said the platforms effectively act as publishers — and should take on publisher-style legal responsibilities — when they weigh content against their terms of service and take actions such as removing it or fact-checking it.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley dramatically unveiled the existence of an internal Facebook tool named Centra that he said is used to track users across the platform without their permission. A Facebook spokesperson said the tool is used for investigating security concerns like "coordinated inauthentic behavior" or fraud.

Democrats said they appreciated the more-aggressive-than-usual approaches Facebook and Twitter took regarding election-related misinformation but worried the platforms didn’t go far enough.

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked Dorsey and Zuckerberg to commit to strong action to keep misinformation from disrupting the Georgia Senate runoff races. Zuckerberg said Facebook will draw lessons from the 2020 general election and make its systems "even more robust."

Our thought bubble: Hawley's reveal of Facebook's Centra tool was a perfect illustration of the alternative worlds Republicans and Democrats are now inhabiting.

  • To Hawley, a tool that Facebook uses to monitor user activity across its platform was smoking-gun proof of nefarious behavior. To Democrats, it looks like a sign the firm is taking the most basic steps against trolls, bots and disinformation campaigns.
4. TikTok receives another ban reprieve

ByteDance, the Chinese firm that owns TikTok, has been granted more time to land a deal to relinquish control of U.S. operations of the wildly popular video-sharing platform.

The big picture: TikTok is an emblem of Trump’s approach to China, which has largely entailed an aggressive posture but sometimes muddled execution.

State of play: The Commerce Department had already confirmed last week that it would comply with a court order and not try to enforce a Nov. 12 deadline Trump had set to ban TikTok if it wasn’t sold.

  • Yes, but: TikTok still ended Nov. 12 in limbo, as a separate divestiture order aimed at ByteDance remained in effect. The administration, however, relented the following morning and extended the deadline on that order until Nov. 27.

What’s next: ByteDance now has less than two weeks to finalize a deal that will see TikTok’s U.S. operations transferred to a consortium that includes Oracle, Walmart and a group of existing ByteDance investors.

  • Or it could in theory still scramble to put together a more conventional full sale with a different buyer.
  • Or with the initial ban twice thwarted in court and only the divestiture order truly looming, TikTok could risk waiting out the Trump administration and see if it can get President-elect Biden to call off the ban threat once he takes office, even if that means technically breaking the law in the interim.

Our thought bubble: The Trump administration’s campaign against TikTok appears to be faltering. This most recent delay underscores the lack of an endgame in sight.

5. Odds and ends