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US Faces New Election Threats          01/26 09:29

   It's been more than three years since Russia's sweeping and systematic  
effort to interfere in U.S. elections through disinformation on social media, 
stolen campaign emails and attacks on voting systems. U.S. officials have made 
advances in trying to prevent similar attacks from undermining the 2020 vote, 
but the potential threats have increased and some old problems have not been 
addressed.

   (AP) -- It's been more than three years since Russia's sweeping and 
systematic  effort to interfere in U.S. elections through disinformation on 
social media, stolen campaign emails and attacks on voting systems. U.S. 
officials have made advances in trying to prevent similar attacks from 
undermining the 2020 vote, but the potential threats have increased and some 
old problems have not been addressed. A look at what has changed since 2016 and 
what has not. 

   THE THREAT

   THEN: U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was the only nation that 
significantly interfered in the 2016 election. Russia's activities shouldn't 
have come as a surprise. Russia is believed to have interfered in Ukraine's 
2014 vote. Russia's 2016 goals, according to an assessment by the U.S. 
intelligence agencies, were to add to the divisiveness in American society, 
undermine faith in the democratic process and harm Democrat Hillary Clinton's 
White House candidacy and potential presidency. 

   NOW: The threat has expanded considerably. U.S. intelligence chiefs say 
potential threats aren't just from Russia, but also from China, Iran and North 
Korea. In addition, there have been indications that hostile foreign 
governments might disguise their attacks to make them appear to be caused by 
other hackers. Campaigns and state and local election systems remain attractive 
targets, and social media is still a convenient method for sowing divisions. 

   ___

   THREAT AWARENESS

   THEN: U.S. officials were ill-prepared for Russian intelligence officers to 
hack Democratic emails and distribute them to WikiLeaks. In addition, the 
covert Russian social media campaign aimed at spreading disinformation among 
American voters was unprecedented and largely undetected until after the 
election. Campaigns underestimated the threat. State and local election 
officials were unaware  that they were on the front lines of defending U.S. 
democracy. 

   NOW: U.S. intelligence chiefs have tried to reassure the public that 
securing U.S. elections from outside interference is a top priority. That's 
despite President Donald Trump's comments dismissing claims of Russian 
interference in the 2016 election and his assertion that he would be open to 
receiving information on his opponents from foreign governments. FBI Director 
Chris Wray frequently warns of foreign interests meddling in American politics. 
He has established a task force aimed at countering foreign hacking and 
disinformation campaigns. State and local election officials repeatedly 
highlight the work they are doing to boost election security, such as training, 
cybersecurity improvements and collaborations with federal officials. 

   ___

   FEDERAL ENGAGEMENT

   THEN: Before 2016, there were no clear communication channels between 
federal authorities and the states, which have primary responsibility for 
elections. When federal officials began to suspect election systems were being 
targeted in 2016, they communicated with some state officials but not 
necessarily those overseeing elections. Some state election officials did not 
learn their systems had been targeted by Russia until late 2017. 

   NOW: The Department of Homeland Security has strengthened relationships with 
state and local election officials. They've offered free cybersecurity 
services, such as risk assessments and vulnerability scanning, and created an 
information-sharing group. They've granted security clearances to state 
election officials so they can receive threat intelligence. They've also sent 
equipment to states to help detect malicious cyberactivity. This was largely 
made possible after then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in January 
2017 designated election systems as "critical infrastructure," on par with 
power plants, banks and dams. Despite initial concerns about the designation, 
state and local officials now largely praise federal efforts to support them.

   ___ 

   CYBERSECURITY IN THE STATES 

   THEN: Before the 2016 election, state election offices were mostly focused 
on ensuring orderly elections and that voting-related equipment functioned 
properly. When Russia breached Illinois' voter registration system and searched 
for vulnerabilities in state election systems across the country, it 
underscored how outmatched state and local election officials were. The threat 
was not isolated to voting machines, but included internal networks, voter 
registration systems, electronic pollbooks and vote reporting websites.

   NOW: States have been scrambling since 2016 to increase their cyberdefenses, 
upgrade voting systems and train local election officials. They received $380 
million in federal money in 2018, though cybersecurity advocates say that 
wasn't enough. Last month, Congress approved an additional $425 million to 
states, although it's likely too late for these funds to be spent replacing old 
or vulnerable voting equipment. But the money can be used quickly for 
cybersecurity personnel, training and audits to ensure the accuracy of election 
results. While the 2018 elections occurred without any major incidents, experts 
say the true test of how resilient state and local election systems are will be 
2020. 

   ___

   VOTING MACHINES 

   THEN: Much of the voting equipment in use in 2016 was purchased in the early 
2000s amid efforts to update election administration following the "hanging 
chad" fiasco of the 2000 presidential election. But that fix created new 
problems. Some new voting machines had touchscreens and did not produce an 
auditable paper record of every vote cast. That meant there was no way to 
ensure these machines were counting votes accurately. Researchers have also 
shown these machines are vulnerable to hacking. In 2016, 20 percent of U.S. 
voters, some 27.5 million people, used these electronic voting machines. 

   NOW: Some state and local election offices have been upgrading old and 
vulnerable voting equipment. But as many as 12 percent of voters nationally, or 
an estimated 16 million people, will continue to use electronic-only machines, 
according to an analysis  by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's Law 
School. A Senate report  urged states to ensure all ballots are cast on 
machines that produce paper records allowing voters to verify their selections. 
But legislation that would require states to make the switch has stalled. 
Meanwhile, concerns have been raised about new touchscreen voting machines 
known as ballot-marking devices. Although these machines produce a paper 
record, there are concerns voters will not verify their selections to ensure 
they are accurate, that the software could be tampered with or a ballot 
programming error could occur. 

   ___

   VENDOR SECURITY 

   THEN: In 2016, three private companies dominated the voting equipment 
industry and faced minimal federal oversight. In addition to manufacturing 
voting machines and equipment, the companies --- Election Systems & Software, 
Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic --- also provide election 
management and vote-tallying systems for many of the nation's 10,000 voting 
jurisdictions. 

   NOW: Nothing has changed when it comes to oversight of the industry. Vendors 
are still not required to submit their voting systems or corporate networks to 
independent, third-party testing for vulnerabilities. Their voting systems are 
certified by labs under a voluntary system administered by the U.S. Election 
Assistance Commission. Security specialists say this testing is inadequate and 
note the commission's guidelines have not been substantially updated since 
2005. Vendors are not required to report cybersecurity breaches involving their 
systems. Some vendors have submitted their systems to a government lab for 
security testing, although the results of those tests have not been made 
public. ES&S has said it has also partnered with Homeland Security to install 
an intrusion detection system on its voter registration systems. 

   ___

   SAFEGUARDING CAMPAIGNS

   THEN: Russia largely caught political organizations off guard. The 2016 
attacks were relatively low-tech, involving hundreds of spearfishing emails. 
All it took was a few people clicking on the wrong email and providing their 
login information. That opened the door to sensitive documents and emails being 
stolen and released publicly. 

   NOW: Campaigns have been largely reticent to detail cybersecurity efforts 
since 2016, so it's difficult to gauge their abilities to prevent attacks. 
Certainly, awareness of the threat is higher, and Homeland Security and 
technology companies have offered resources to help campaigns. Candidates have 
also been receiving advice from the Republican and Democratic national 
committees, which say they are in regular communication with federal officials 
and are focused on implementing basic security protocols, including steps to 
prevent phishing attacks.

   ___ 

   SOCIAL MEDIA/DISINFORMATION 

   THEN: The 2016 election was marred  by Russian attempts to use fake accounts 
on social media to increase polarization among Americans. A Senate report  said 
Russian operatives masqueraded as Americans, using targeted ads, intentional 
false news stories and social media to interact and attempt to deceive millions 
in the U.S. Both law enforcement and social media companies were ill-prepared 
to identify the threat, let alone address it. 

   NOW: Since 2016, social media platforms have invested in efforts to combat 
misinformation, identify online impostors and root out foreign interference in 
domestic elections. Twitter stopped accepting political ads, while Facebook 
began verifying the identity of ad buyers in 2018 and further tightened its 
rules last year. Google has made it harder for advertisers to target audiences 
based on specific characteristics such as their voting record or political 
affiliation. The changes haven't satisfied critics who say the platforms and 
their policies, and a lack of action by the government, leave the U.S. open to 
additional disinformation campaigns in 2020 --- from both foreign and domestic 
sources. 

   ___

   PUBLIC DISCLOSURE: 

   THEN: In 2016, there was no federal law to compel  a federal agency or state 
and local government to disclose the breach of an election system, and a 
federal policy shielded the identity of all cyber victims regardless of whether 
election systems are involved. That meant state officials wouldn't necessarily 
find out if an electoral system in one of its counties had been attacked and 
could certify elections without realizing there had been problems. 

   NOW: There have been no changes to federal law. Even now, the public still 
doesn't know which Florida counties were breached by Russian agents in 2016. In 
a step toward addressing that secrecy, the Trump administration last year 
released a framework  for notifying victims and the public of cyberattacks 
during the 2020 election. Decisions about whether to provide notification would 
take into account the need to avoid undermining investigations and to protect 
sources and methods. Also, the FBI now plans to notify  state election 
officials in the event a local system is breached, but will not release this 
information to the public. 


(KR)

 
 
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