As Google opts out of Senate Intelligence hearings, group sets up Google account posing as Russian troll company — again
The advocacy group undermines Google's claims that its systems are robust and can quickly detect and take down fake accounts.
While Google was conspicuously absent from a Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, a research group announced it had once again successfully set up a Google account posing as a Russian propaganda outlet.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (seated beside an empty seat for Google) testified about steps their companies are taking to address election security on their platforms. While the hearings were underway, researchers working for the advocacy group Campaign for Accountability (CfA) tweeted that they had again been able to set up a Google account posing as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian propaganda company.
Just the day before, the CfA published a report outlining how the company had set up another account in the name of the Internet Research Agency and paid in rubles for divisive ads like those used by the IRA leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.
Despite seeding the account with several potential red flags, the researchers said the ads were approved within 24 hours and garnered 5,787 impressions and 56 clicks at a total cost of 398 rubles (approximately US $6.30) in the two days they ran during June.
On Wednesday, during the hearings, the CfA group tweeted that it had been able to set up a Google account using the Internet Research Agency’s tax ID.
Google declined to send Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai to participate in the hearings. The committee declined Google’s offer to instead send SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker. To highlight the search giant’s absence, the committee set the empty chair at the table beside the two other executives. The company was called out by senators on several occasions for its failure to participate.
These reports from the CfA would seem to undermine Google’s assurances in August that it was addressing state-sponsored activity, citing the removal of YouTube channels, email accounts and Google accounts tied to foreign actors.
“Our Threat Analysis Group, working with our partners at Jigsaw and Google’s Trust & Safety team, identifies bad actors, disables their accounts, warns our users about them and shares intelligence with other companies and law enforcement officials,” wrote Walker in August.
Google says the indicators it listed in Walker’s August post, including technical data/IP address space, domain ownership information and account metadata and subscriber information, were not triggered by this effort.
The company says its systems have seen limited abuse from foreign entities. Instead, Google points the finger at Oracle, which is among the backers of the CfA and has been entangled in a years-long patent and copyright infringement case against Google, for what it believes amounts to a PR stunt. Still, Google also says it has upgraded its systems as a result of these actions.
“We’ve built numerous controls, technical detection systems and a detailed mapping of foreign troll accounts. To date, largely because of this work, the abuse from foreign entities has been limited,” a Google spokesperson said. “Now that one of our US-based competitors is actively misrepresenting itself, as part of a stunt to impersonate Russian trolls, we have taken further appropriate action to upgrade our systems and processes. We’d encourage Oracle and its astroturf groups to work together with us to prevent real instances of foreign abuse — that’s how we work with other technology companies.”
Oracle denies knowing about the CfA’s actions. “We have absolutely no idea what Google is talking about. This is the first we’ve heard of this. Wish we had a ruble for every time Google blamed their problems on us,” said Oracle senior vice-president Ken Glueck in a statement.
The CfA tagged the committee heads, Senators Mark Warner and Richard Burr, in the tweet sent during the hearings.
UPDATE: One day after we released our report on Google’s failure to crack down on Russian trolls, you can *still* set up a Google AdWords account in the name of the Internet Research Agency. Simply put in its tax ID and Google populates the rest. @MarkWarner @SenatorBurr
— Google Transparency (@GTP_updates) September 5, 2018
This article has been updated to include Google and Oracle’s responses.