MPs launch inquiry into digital currencies amid cybercrime fears

Scrutiny is needed to examine risks for investors, says Treasury committee chair Nicky Morgan

A powerful committee of MPs is launching an inquiry into bitcoin and other digital currencies over fears that cryptocurrencies could lead to increased “market volatility, money laundering and cybercrime”.

The Treasury select committee said the inquiry would “examine the potential impact of distributed ledger technology – such as blockchain – on financial institutions, including the central bank, and financial infrastructure”.

Related: Bitcoin: is it a bubble waiting to burst or a good investment?

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“We Primed Ourselves For Discord” – The Dangers Of Exaggerating Russia’s Role In The 2016 Election

As we’ve pointed out time and time again, anybody who has read the Mueller indictment would likely assume that Russian agents were orchestrating a sophisticated psy-op against the American people during the run-up to the 2016 vote – and that their meddling had a demonstrable impact on the outcome.

As if anybody expected the 2016 campaign season to be a placid affair, with two of the most controversial candidates in US electoral history going head-to-head?

Mueller

In today’s New York Post, columnist Rich Lowry highlights how exaggerating the impact that the 13 Russians and 3 Russian entities charged by Mueller had on the election risks doing more harm than good. The Post also reported that it couldn’t find any evidence that pro-Trump and anti-Hillary rallies that were purportedly organized by the Russians in New York — not exactly a swing state — in June and July of 2016 had ever taken place.

The Russia campaign was a shockingly cynical violation of our sovereignty. President Trump would do himself and the country a favor by frankly denouncing it.

But the scale of the operation shouldn’t be exaggerated. In the context of a hugely expensive, obsessively covered, impossibly dramatic presidential election, the Russian contribution on social media was piddling and often laughable.

The Russians wanted to boost Trump, but as a Facebook executive noted, most of their spending on Facebook ads came after the election. The larger goal was to sow discord, yet we had already primed ourselves for plenty of that ourselves.

Lowry’s column comes at an opportune time. Earlier this week, two interesting stories published this week by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal fleshed out new details of the suspected Putin-linked Russian bots’ activities. And in both instances, though the content was salacious, alarmist and crude, almost none of it pertained directly to candidates for American office.

Which reminds us of the fact that Mueller has said there’s no proof the Russians had a material impact on the election – though he has unequivocally allowed – even encouraged via the fusillade of leaks out of his office – the unfounded suspicion of unalterable wrongdoing to linger.

First, the New York Times published a story about Russia-linked bots spreading misinformation and hysteria following last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Any news event – no matter how tragic has become fodder to spread inflammatory messages in what is believed to be a far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign. The disinformation comes in various forms: conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a topic or discussion on Twitter.

Those automated Twitter accounts have been closely tracked by researchers. Last year, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, created a website that tracks hundreds of Twitter accounts of human users and suspected bots that they have linked to a Russian influence campaign.

That’s right: These accounts are meticulously tracked, and, researchers have proven that the vast majority of the content they produce has nothing to do with American politics. They have one trait in common: They are salacious and often include disinformation. But rarely are they political.

Hoax

And, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates in a deeply researched piece published yesterday, this is not a new strategy. These accounts have been active for years. In citing incidents that have been identified by investigators as coordinated disinformation campaigns, the aim appears more toward impacting markets and spreading hysteria than any expressly political aim.

The story begins with a recounting of how Russian trolls spread a swiftly discredited story about food poisoning being spread by Wal-Mart turkeys. While there’s no evidence the hoax impacted the stock, it’s easy to imagine that this was it’s aim.

WSJ says most of the bots identified by the US government first became active in 2014.

The Journal’s data shows a small number of Russian tweets before 2014, but it was a deadly plane crash that year that brought out the strongest early response. On July 17, 2014, an anti-aircraft missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

…Some of the false stories spread by the bots were intended to discredit the Ukrainian government…

Russian-linked Twitter users at first tweeted news of the tragedy, but within hours they were raising questions about who was responsible. By the next morning, they had latched onto a hashtag blaming the Ukrainian government: КиевСбилБоинг – Kiev shot down the airliner.

Despite this, Mueller insists that he’s still investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia – though, at this point, it appears that the investigation’s primary achievement will be a lengthy prison sentence for former campaign executive Paul Manafort, who has been a long-time target of the FBI, beginning back in the early 2000s, around the time that Mueller’s tenure as head of the bureau began.

After all, one shouldn’t exaggerate the role Russians played in the election – if only to avoid sowing more partisan fear and division in a system that’s already rife with both.

Syria’s Afrin Move: “Artful Assistance To Allies” Or “Armageddon In The Making”?

Authored by Andrew Korybko via Oriental Review,

Syria reportedly agreed to the Kurdish PYD-YPG “federalist” militia’s request to enter Afrin and stop the Turks’ military advance, though it still remains to be seen whether Damascus will actually carry through on this decision or not.

There have been conflicting reports on this topic all across the past week, but the official “Syrian Arab News Agency” (SANA) confirmed that the “Popular Mobilization Units” (PMU) will deploy to the region in order to thwart the Turks, debunking earlier claims that the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will directly do so instead. Even so, this would b e a very dangerous development if it actually happens because it could quickly lead to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) entering the fray in support of their pro-government partners and thus sparking a conventional state-to-state war with Turkey. Syria has every sovereign right to deploy its own forces and those of its allies anywhere within its territory, but taking a step back from principled idealism and soberly assessing the reality of the situation, this might not be the wisest decision at the moment.

The Turkish Foreign Minister warned in no uncertain terms that his country’s military forces will not be stopped by the SAA or its allied PMU if they intervene on behalf of the PYD-YPG “federal” Kurds that Ankara equates with the terrorist-designated PKK, and it’s very likely that the war-weary and completely exhausted Syrian military might be routed by the much more powerful Turks if “push comes to shove”. Not only that, but there’s close to no possibility that Russia would get involved in “saving Syria” either since its military mandate is strictly for anti-terrorist purposes and President Assad’s closest advisor Ms. Bouthaina Shaaban confirmed that Moscow withdrew all of its ground forces except for a few remaining aircraft.

In addition, Dr. Vitaly Naumkin – Russia’s premier Mideast expert and the man who’s playing a crucial role in organizing Moscow’s peacemaking efforts in Syria – wrote in the position paper released at the beginning of the prestigious Valdai Club’s two-day conference earlier this week that “part of the government elite may have greater hopes for military victory than the dividends that negotiations would eventually pay”. This is the strongest statement yet of Moscow’s growing impatience with Damascus’ refusal to enter into the “compromises” that President Putin suggested that the authorities make back in November in order to facilitate an internationally brokered peace to the conflict. On top of that, Damascus rejected the outcome of the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” just last week, which may have prompted Naumkin’s stark warning about so-called ‘hardliners’ who might prospectively impede the peace process.

Bearing in mind this high-level official’s words and the fact that Russia withdrew most of its military forces from Syria, as well as Moscow’s visibly growing dissatisfaction with the Syrian government’s procrastination on making any tangible progress towards a “political solution”, there are concrete grounds for predicting that Russia would not support the SAA if they enter into conflict with the Turks, further amplifying the existential risk that Damascus faces if it allows the Kurds to “play them like a fiddle” and falls for this disastrous scenario. It might be for this reason why the authorities never carried through on their implied threat to dispatch conventional military units to Afrin, begrudgingly realizing after President Putin’s phone call with President Erdogan that Russia would “hang them out to dry” as they initiate what might have amounted to an act of “national suicide”.

Nevertheless, the situation is still highly combustible right now and a larger war could break out at any time due to even the slightest miscalculation by the Syrian side, thus leaving the whole world watching with bated breath to see what happens next.