Top tech companies met with intelligence officials to discuss midterm elections

Eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies, in anticipation of a repeat of the Russian meddling that occurred during the 2016 presidential campaign, met with United States intelligence officials last month to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.

The meeting, which took place May 23 at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., was also attended by representatives from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oath, Snap and Twitter, according to three attendees of the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its sensitive nature.

The company officials met with Christopher Krebs, an under secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newly formed “foreign influence” task force.

Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the F.B.I. responded to a request for comment.

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Companies like Facebook and Twitter have been changing the way they operate to counter the kind of misinformation that plagued the two social services in 2016. But the May meeting was the first significant discussion between a group of tech companies and intelligence officials ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

The meeting, which was initiated by Facebook, was seen as a hopeful first step to ensure that the midterms were not a repeat of the Russian interference in 2016, said the three people who attended the meeting.

But the people who attended described a tense atmosphere in which the tech companies repeatedly pressed federal officials for information, only to be told — repeatedly — that no specific intelligence would be shared.

The tech companies shared details about disinformation campaigns they were witnessing on their platforms, but neither the F.B.I. nor the Department of Homeland Security was willing or able to share specific information about threats the tech companies should anticipate, the people said.

One attendee of the meeting said the encounter led the tech companies to believe they would be on their own to counter election interference.

American intelligence officials have offered blunt warnings that Russia and other foreign governments are already meddling in the closely watched midterm election campaign.

Facebook, in particular, has been facing pressure to stem disinformation ahead of the elections. The company has been hit hard by reports that it allowed Russian-backed agents to buy advertisements and manage Facebook pages with one notable goal: influence voters in the United States and stoke conflict on hot-button issues like gun control.

In public and behind close doors, intelligence officials have offered scant details about what Russia is doing, prompting frustration from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill.

Officials in Washington have described problems that range from intelligence agencies losing track of Russian targets to the same kind of poor communication between various intelligence-gathering agencies that hampered the response of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency has proved an especially vexing target in recent months, stepping up efforts to mask its activity, said an American official with access to intelligence reporting.

Unlike in 2016, when Russian hackers left unmistakable footprints — posting tweets that identified locations, for instance, or working in Cyrillic language documents — they are now making much better use of virtual private networks and other tools that can hide their true identities and locations.

At times, the official said, intelligence agencies have lost track of specific individuals they were tracking, and could not see what, if anything, the Russians were posting or trying to hack.

“We’re getting so many mixed signals, depending on what the agency is,” Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters last week.

He said his committee was planning to bring together intelligence officials next month to figure out what was going on and how the government should handle it. “It compels us to bring everybody together in the same room and try to figure out whether or not there’s some stovepipe issues,” Mr. Burr said.

Part of the problem, officials say, is that the White House has expressed little interest in the problem of Russian interference, and that the apathy has had a trickle-down effect. Without pressure from the top, it can be difficult to bring together all the different strands of intelligence collected across America’s spy agencies, and evaluate how to act on it.

“What we would normally see in a normal administration is the principals meeting to discuss what are they doing individually, what are they doing jointly, or what they are communicating among themselves, what’s the whole of government plan to protect the midterms,” Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and the top minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with Politico. “I just don’t see any evidence that’s happening.”