The GOP Is Conducting Cyber Warfare Against Political Opponents

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As speculation builds over the extent of Russian meddling in 2018’s elections, the deceptive and influential tactics revealed in last week’s indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller—and newer ones—are already in use by U.S. politicos with pro-corporate, pro-GOP agendas.

The examples run the gamut from the seemingly trite—a Republican Senate candidate in Arizona touts an endorsement from a new website impersonating local newspapers—to more overtly serious: a tweet storm calling for Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken to resign, which he did last year after escalating accusations of sexual harassment; or tens of thousands of faked emails calling for the repeal of net neutrality, which the GOP-led Federal Communications Commission recently repealed.

In these examples and others, a new hall of mirrors is emerging that threatens American elections and governance—and it is coming from shadowy domestic operatives, not Russians. Websites mimicking news organizations are endorsing candidates. Online identities are being stolen and use to send partisan messages, with people unaware they are being impersonated for partisan gain. Targets are slow to detect or acknowledge the high-tech ruses used against them. The media is catching on, but it’s typically after the fact—not before crucial decisions are made.

While many progressives were split on whether Franken should have left the Senate, the Republican right was unambiguous in seizing the moment to force the Democrats to lose a popular senator.    

Twitter War

“White nationalist provocateurs, a pair of fake news sites, an army of Twitter bots and other cyber tricks helped derail Democratic Senator Al Franken last year, new research shows,” a report by Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh began, describing new details about how he was targeted. “Analysts have now mapped out how Hooters pinup girl and lad-mag model Leeann Tweeden’s initial accusation against Franken became effective propaganda after right-wing black ops master Roger Stone first hinted at the allegation.”

“A pair of Japan-based websites, created the day before Tweeden came forward, and a swarm of related Twitter bots made the Tweeden story go viral and then weaponized a liberal writer’s criticism of Franken,” Burleigh explained. “The bot army—in tandem with prominent real, live members of the far right who have Twitter followers in the millions, such as Mike Cernovich—spewed thousands of posts, helping the #FrankenFondles hashtag and the “Franken is a groper” meme effectively silence the testimonies of eight former female staffers who defended the Minnesota Democrat before he resigned last year.”

This evidence trail tracing how right-wingers used software to amplify the attacks on Franken was discovered by Mike Farb at UnhackTheVote, an election transparency group. He noted this tactic was also one tool used by Russian propagandists during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

What’s new now is not that technologies like bots are being created, but that domestic political operatives are using them in much the same way they have used robo-calls, negative campaign mailers and other attacks to undermine political opponents—before the internet and its social media platforms amplified the speed, intensity and impact of such attacks. 

“Like targeted Facebook ads that Russian troll farms used in the 2016 election, Twitter bots have been around for years and were originally created for sales purposes,” Burleigh wrote. “But since the 2016 election, arguably lost due to the right’s superior utilization of darker online strategies, the left is not known to have created or mobilized its own fake cyber army to amplify its viewpoint.”

Burleigh’s observation may be the most chilling. The evidence that is out there so far does suggest that pro-GOP and pro-corporate forces are bet g quicker to embrace the latest version of political dark arts—as seen in the growing list of examples of deceptive and influential online campaigns.

Endorsements That Weren’t

Last week, Politico reported on what, at first, seemed like a silly story—a Republican senatorial candidate from Arizona fell for a fake endorsement that seemed to boost her chances in an upcoming primary.

“It looked as if Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward had scored a big endorsement: On Oct. 28, she posted a link on her campaign website and blasted out a Facebook post, quoting extensively from a column in the Arizona Monitor,” Politico reported. “There was just one problem: Despite its reputable sounding name, the Arizona Monitor is not a real news site… The site launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.”

The general public doesn’t pay much attention to endorsements early in campaigns. So Ward falling for a faked one might be a typical mistake that inexperienced candidates make—and thus easily forgotten. But Politico’s report said her endorsement was part of a larger and far more disturbing trend: the mass-production of fabricated endorsements by anonymous political operatives clearly pushing a far-right agenda.

“The Arizona Monitor seems to be part of a growing trend of conservative political-messaging sites with names that mimic those of mainstream news organizations and whose favored candidates then tout their stories and endorsements as if they were from independent journalists,” wrote Politico. “It’s a phenomenon that spans the country from northern New England, where the anonymous Maine Examiner wreaked havoc on a recent mayoral election, all the way out to California, where Rep. Devin Nunes launched — as reported by POLITICO— his own so-called news outlet, the California Republican.”

“This basically is an appropriation of credibility,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Politco. “As the credibility of reputable news outlets is appropriated for partisan purposes, we are going to undermine the capacity of legitimate outlets to signal their trustworthiness.” 

Political Identity Theft

Cyber deception also is appearing across the government in the nooks and crannies where White House directives or Congress’ laws are turned into the rules Americans must abide by—or in the Trump era, are repealed.

Here, political identity theft is increasingly becoming a tactic used to push federal agencies to end to consumer protections and other regulations that impede profits. Hundreds of thousands of public comments, purportedly made by real Americans, have come in over the electronic transom at five different agencies in recent months, a series of investigative reports found. Except, the people who supposedly sent these comments never did.

A recent example concerns the “Fiduciary Rule,” which originated in the Labor Department and was to talk effect in July 2019, to try to prevent conflicts of investment from investment advisers targeting retirees.

“The [Wall Street] Journal previously found fraudulent postings under names and email addresses at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission,” it noted.

The highest-profile example concerned the FCC’s so-called net neutrality ruled, which previously had regulated telecom giants from overcharging the public and smaller businesses for access to online data. a day before the FCC voted in November to gut net neutrality, the Verge reported, “A search of the duplicated text found more than 58,000 results as of press time, with 17,000 of those posted in the last 24 hours alone.”

In other words, a bot-like program was hijacking online identities and impersonating those people to file pro-corporate comments at the FCC. When public officials like New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, sought more information from the FCC, he received no response.

While one can speculate about who specifically coordinated these efforts, there is only one category of special interest has the means and motives to thwart government regulators: that’s the targeted industries, professional trade association and lobbyists and the biggest corporate players.

No Accountability Coming

These are people and interests that are represented by Republicans in Washington more so than Democrats. But, as Schneiderman learned, the GOP and it’s political appointees have no inclination to even acknowledge that cyber deception is becoming a new coin of the political realm—while they rule that roost.

Progressives and Democrats might point out that the GOP is the party that obsesses over voter fraud—one person voting many times, which almost never occurs in real life—while Republican-friendly operatives appear to be embracing cyber political identity theft on an unprecedented scale.

What this means for 2018’s elections is uncertain, but it doesn’t bode well. No matter where partisan cyber warfare is coming from—domestically or abroad—its occurrence will undermine public confidence in the results.

The congressional midterms and governors’ races in many states are occurring against a backdrop of a rising blue voter turnout wave. It’s in the GOP’s interests in preserving their power to do anything that undermines the credibility of electoral outcomes that should favor Democrats.

Cyber political warfare is the latest means for doing so. It’s already begun. 

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections, including Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, to be published in March 2018 from Hot Books.

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As An American Tragedy Unfolds, Russian Agents Sow Discord Online

People gather for a memorial one day after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. Experts warn that Russians are exploiting the tragedy on social media. Carolyn Cole/LA Times via Getty Images hide caption

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Carolyn Cole/LA Times via Getty Images

People gather for a memorial one day after the deadly shooting in Parkland, Fla. Experts warn that Russians are exploiting the tragedy on social media.

Carolyn Cole/LA Times via Getty Images

As the news broke of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., hundreds of twitter accounts believed to be under Russian sway pivoted.

Many had been tweeting about places like Syria and Ukraine — countries where Russia is seeking to strengthen its influence. Suddenly the accounts shifted to hashtags like #guncontrol, #guncontrolnow, and #gunreformnow. Tweets mentioning Nikolas Cruz, the name of the alleged shooter, spiked.

For Bret Schafer, an analyst with Hamilton 68, a site tracking Russian influence on Twitter, the pattern is becoming all too familiar. Hamilton 68 follows 600 accounts run by the Russian government, Russian trolls, bots, and individuals sympathetic to the Russian point of view. Data collected by the site over the past few months suggests that Russian social media accounts are now regularly seizing on divisive or tragic news to rile up segments of American society.

“The Kremlin doesn’t care about gun control in America, they have no skin in this game,” Schafer says. Accordingly, some accounts tracked by Hamilton 68 spew extreme, pro-gun rhetoric. Others attack the National Rifle Association. “By taking an extreme hyper-partisan position, it just serves to further rip us apart,” Schafer says.

American intelligence services are increasingly concerned about Russian accounts in social media. At a hearing the day before the shooting, Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, warned that cyber warfare, including on social media, were one of his “greatest concerns”.

“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee. Adversaries “seek to sow division in the United States and weaken U.S. leadership.”

The intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, also out Tuesday, warns that Russia in particular will use social media “to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.” The report predicts those attacks are likely to target the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

Schafer says that the Russian accounts his organization tracks now follow a well-worn path. First, he says, they tweet out news and breaking developments. This helps them to gain attention and attract new followers. Then they begin tweeting highly inflammatory material to fan the flames of partisanship.

Finally, Schafer says, the accounts shift to conspiracy theories. “They build this narrative of, ‘You are being lied to by the government, by the media, by everyone else, so don’t trust anyone or anything,'” he says. “It’s not just divisive, there’s an erosion quality to it as well—of eroding trust.”

By Friday morning, new hashtags surged on the network tracked by Hamilton 68. They included #fbicorrpution and #falseflag.

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Texas Football Gets Suspended — By Twitter?

Less than 24 hours until National Signing Day, the Texas football program had a crisis situation on its hands: Its Twitter account was — gasp — suspended.

How would the Longhorns tweet out cool graphics of Joshua Moore and Keondre Coburn? Would Moore and Coburn flip to programs who could tweet out cool graphics?

If a prospect signs and his school can’t tweet it, did it ever really happen?

Notable suspensions in 2017 for @TexasFootball:

* CB Holton Hill

* WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey

* RB Toneil Carter

* TE Reese Leitao

Notable suspensions in 2018 for @TexasFootball:

* Twitter#HookEm

— Danny Davis (@aasdanny) February 6, 2018

Free @TexasFootball!

— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) February 6, 2018

More importantly, why did @TexasFootball get put in timeout?

According to Twitter, there are three reasons for account suspensions:

1. Spam

2. Account security at risk

3. Abusive Tweets or behavior

Was it spam? Was it abusive behavior? Depending on the source, a case could be made for each, which leads us to — dun, dun, dun — Texas A&M and Oklahoma: suspects No. 1 and 1A.

Did the Aggies hack the account, thus prompting the suspension? Has the Red River Rivalry escalated to cyber warfare? Was it Johnny Manziel? Was it Baker Mayfield?

Was it Johnny Manziel and Baker Mayfield?

Let’s investigate.

Manziel, it seems, recently joined TexasAgs.com as a registered user. That puts him on the device needed to commit the crime during the time frame in which the crime was committed — and under the influence of an extremist group with a demonstrated distaste for the University of Texas.

My pleasure. See you guys Saturday https://t.co/9mSTYYgePw

— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) February 6, 2018

“My pleasure,” Johnny? What exactly does that mean?

And what about Mayfield?

Well, the Heisman Trophy winner has been Zero Dark Thirty-6 for several days now. Very suspicious if you ask me. And then there’s this:

#MMOpic.twitter.com/CbjPpdMzkU

— Baker Mayfield (@baker_mayfield6) February 2, 2018

Mayfield was seen with Justin Timberlake on Feb. 2, just days before the “Man of the Woods” used technology to bring Prince back from the afterlife to perform a duet during the Super Bowl. If Timberlake can do that, don’t you think he can show Mayfield how to hack a Twitter account?

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we’ve successfully worked this case. When in doubt, blame Manziel and Mayfield. They’re obviously responsible for this.


UPDATE: The Longhorns are back. Nice try, Johnny. Good job, good effort, Baker.

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Twitter Handles of Swapan Dasgupta, Anupam Kher Suspended After Hackers Tweet ‘I love …

Twitter has temporarily suspended accounts of Rajya Sabh MP Swapan Dasgupta, Economist Kaushik Basu, BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav, and actor Anupam Kher after they were allegedly hacked by ‘Pro-Pakistan’ Turkish cyber army ayyildiz tim.

“Our teams are working to resolve an issue affecting a small number of Indian users. We will notify affected account holders directly. Reminder: do not click on links in DMs coming from unknown accounts,” said Twitter in a warning after the hacking of accounts.

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The blue tick from the verified handle of Anupam Kher and Ram Madhav also disappeared before it was eventually temporarily shut down by Twitter.

Kher, who is currently in Los Angeles, said he got to know about the breach from his friends in India and has alerted the microblogging site about the incident.

“My Twitter account has been hacked. Just got few calls from friends in India about it. I am in LA and it is 1 am,” Kher told PTI over a text message.

“The Big Sick” actor said he received a link from Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta in a direct message, a first ever from him yesterday, which he clicked upon. “Got a DM yesterday from Mr Swapan Dasgupta’s account about a link. A first from him. So opened it. Have spoken to Twitter already,” Kher added.

“Hello there! I want to introduce ourselves first. In 2002, the Republic of Turkey to protect it from cyber attacks and to combat terrorist organisations were founded. Turkey’s first cyber army of. We have 300,000s (sic)”, read a pinned tweet on Swapan Dasgupta’s handle

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“I love Pakistan,” read the tweet shared by the hackers in all the three twitter accounts.

DMs (Direct messages) were also sent to imminent journalists from the hacked accounts, which were being shared on Twitter.

Early this year, twitter account of India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Syed Akbaruddin was also hacked by the same cyber army, when two photographs of Pakistan’s flag and the neighbour country’s President Mamnoon Hussain were posted from his account.

Evidently, cyber attack has not been a new strategy for the terrorists in Pakistan, and government officials have been prime targets.

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In 2016, a total of 199 government websites were hacked in India, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had told the Parliament.

In fact, more than 700 websites under the Indian government have been hacked from 2013 to 2016.

Last year in January, the website of the National Security Guard (NSG), the Indian special forces unit combating terror activities, was also hacked posing unprecedented threat to national security.

The website was, however, blocked immediately by the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT.IN).

As technology has progressed, so has the strategy of terror attacks, and cyber warfare has taken over the battlefield to breach the national security.

(Inputs from agencies)

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Rahul announces creation of AICC data analytics dept to effectively use ‘Big Data’

New Delhi, Feb 5 (UNI) Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Monday approved the creation of the AICC data analytics department to use ‘Big Data’ effectively.

Mr Praveen Chakravarty has been named as the chairman of the AICC data analytics department.

Announcing the creation of the new department on twitter, Rahul said, ’’Excited to announce a “Data Analytics” dept under the leadership of Praveen Chakravarty to effectively use “Big Data”.

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Editorial: McCabe’s departure just creates more questions

The investigation is important because the public needs to know about the attack perpetrated on the country by Russia. Earlier this month, Twitter announced nearly 700,000 users were exposed to Russian propaganda from more than 50,000 automated accounts during the 2016 election. Meanwhile, Facebook estimated more than 300,000 users were viewing nearly 130 Russian-created events between 2015 and 2017.

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Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls’ Influence on Democracy

CIA Chief Warns Russia Is Seeking to Influence US Midterm ElectionsMathew J. Schwartz (euroinfosec) • January 30, 2018

Information Warfare: Gauging Trolls' Influence on Democracy
Distribution of reported locations for tweets by Russian trolls (red circles) and a random, baseline set of Twitter users (green triangles). (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and their Influence on the Web”)

The United States appears to be headed into yet another perfect information warfare storm of Russian making.

See Also:Ransomware: The Look at Future Trends

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will impose no new sanctions on Russia as a result of its 2016 meddling in the U.S. presidential election or 2014 invasion of Crimea.

But CIA Director Mike Pompeo tells the BBC that he’s seen no “significant decrease” in Russian information warfare activity and predicts it will not decline before November’s House and Senate mid-term elections (see No Shock: Russia Confirms ‘Cyber War’ Efforts).

“I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I’m confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great,” Pompeo says.

Russian Disinformation Campaigns

In October 2016, the U.S. Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence blamed the Russian government for attempting to interfere in U.S. elections by hacking and leaking documents, saying such activities were authored by “Russia’s senior-most officials.” (See US Government Accuses Russia of Election Hacking)

The precise manner of that interference continues to come into focus, as Twitter, Google and Facebook release details of social media accounts tied to Russia’s disinformation and propaganda efforts (see Senate Grills Tech Giants Over Russian Fake News).

Troll Farms

What effect might Russian information warfare efforts have on U.S. voters?

In late 2017, Congress launched an investigation into Russian interference and released Twitter accounts flagged as being used by Russian trolls.

A group of researchers have since analyzed what they say are “27,000 tweets posted by 1,000 Twitter users identified [by Congress] as having ties with Russia’s Internet Research Agency and thus likely state-sponsored trolls.” The researchers – from Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and University of Alabama at Birmingham – looked at the Twitter users’ impact not just on that social network, but also on the Reddit and 4chan forums, according to their new report, “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web.”

Troll Hashtags

Top 20 hashtags in tweets from Russian trolls compared to a baseline, random set of Twitter users. (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web”)

Their chief finding: The quantifiable impact of the “trolls’ influence” on other Twitter, Reddit and 4chan users over a 21-month period “was not substantial with respect to the other platforms, with the significant exception of news published by the Russian state-sponsored news outlet RT,” which was previously known as Russia Today.

The researchers found that tweets that include links to RT had four times as much impact as other trolling efforts (see Russian Interference: Anatomy of a Propaganda Campaign).

Terms extracted from Latent Dirichlet Allocation analysis of tweets’ semantics, comparing Russian trolls with a baseline of random Twitter users. (Source: “Disinformation Warfare: Understanding State-Sponsored Trolls on Twitter and Their Influence on the Web”)

Return on Investment

So why would the Russian government sanction disinformation campaigns via Twitter if they had negligible impact?

The researchers say the apparently limited influence could relate to their only studying 1,000 troll accounts – a very small sample. But another likely explanation is simply that trolls’ goals are more indirect.

“Another, more plausible explanation is that the troll accounts are just not terribly efficient at spreading news, and instead are more concerned with causing havoc by pushing ideas, engaging other users or even taking both sides of controversial online discussions,” the researchers write.

Bolstering that theory: Twitter recently reported that it’s discovered at least 50,000 automated troll accounts, which may be much better at sending people to specific URLs, the researchers say, adding that they hope to see more sophisticated measurement techniques get developed.

Influence is Tricky

Alan Woodward, a professor of computer science at the University of Surrey, says that demonstrating the scale of trolling – as this paper does – is tough to translate into how people’s opinions may have been swayed.

“It is notoriously difficult to measure – and hence prove – influence,” he says. “We all like to think we are more intelligent than that.”

Counterpoint: Billions of dollars get spent every year by businesses who want to influence which laundry detergent, fast-food restaurant or vacuum cleaner they prefer.

Psychological Warfare

The very fact that the Kremlin sponsors troll farms suggests they do serve a purpose. “The Russians would not persist if they didn’t think it had some benefit them, even if that is to cause sow confusion,” Woodward says. “It’s also interesting that ‘western’ countries are setting up psychological warfare units that specialize in online social media.”

The United Kingdom, for example launched its 77th Brigade – motto: “Influence and Outreach” – in 2015. The same year, the EU launched a rapid-response European External Action Service designed to counter disinformation campaigns.

Woodward likens the influence of foreign powers to the days of newspaper barons, when “owners of newspapers could sway opinions through editorial control.” But whereas newspapers had an owner and mastheads, social media can make it much tougher to identify who’s behind messaging that can operate at a heretofore unseen scale.

Arguably, today’s stakes are also much higher than ever. “At the very least, I think that foreign powers can cause a loss of trust and sow doubt about the effectiveness, relevance and so on of a country’s government, and that has to build a picture in the minds of swing voters,” Woodward says. “At worst it could bring the whole concept of democracy into disrepute.”

Trump Administration Criticizes Sanctions for Russia

Given the threat posed by Russian information warfare, many observers continue to ask: What will the United States do to attempt to deter future Russian meddling in U.S. elections?

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will not sanction Russia, as required by a new U.S. law meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

“Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released on Monday. “Since the enactment of the … legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” or CAATSA, cleared Congress last August and was signed into law by President Trump, even though he described it as “deeply flawed.”

The passage of the law also prompted criticism from Russia, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying it signaled a “full-scale trade war” against Russia.

The law requires the Trump administration, as of Monday, to impose at least five out of 12 sanctions specified in section 235 of CAATSA on anyone determined to engage “in a significant transaction” with anyone who’s part of Russia’s defense or intelligence sectors.

While the White House initially rebuffed the law’s requirements, later on Monday, the administration acceded somewhat to the law’s demands by issuing a list of 114 Russian politicians and 96 oligarchs – some close to Putin – in what’s informally known as the “Putin list.”

Some of the individuals on that list are already subject to U.S. sanctions. But it’s not clear if more individuals on the list might be sanctioned, or if the list’s purpose is simply to “name and shame” them.

The U.S. Treasury, for example, notes that the list “is not a sanctions list, and the inclusion of individuals or entities … does not and in no way should be interpreted to impose sanctions on those individuals or entities.”

But if the Trump administration does not attempt to exact a political or financial price for Russia’s continuing attempt to meddle in U.S. political affairs, it’s unclear whether the Kremlin will have any incentive to cease its U.S.-focused information warfare campaigns.

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