How mere allegations of election interference can be enough to trigger real threats

The threat of foreign interference in the US election remains a major concern, an election official with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said Thursday, with nation-state actors potentially weaponizing disinformation to further stoke mistrust of the process. of voting.

Kim Wyman, senior election security adviser for CISA, said during a panel discussion on election security at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit that previous US elections have included a combination of foreign influence campaigns and cyberattacks ” from domestic and foreign actors trying to enter our systems”. .” But she said these ongoing interference efforts could also be used as weapons to amplify threats of physical violence against election officials and conspiracies over the accuracy of the electoral process.

“These may be exaggerated claims of being able to breach a system or obtain data,” Wyman said. “They can also be real successful attempts. And all of that sort of feeds on itself, because you’ve got the narrative and the influencer campaign, you’ve got the actual cyber activity, and now I think what we’re starting to see is potentially issues of resulting physical security.

Michael Daniel, president and CEO of the Cyber ​​Threat Alliance, said one of the current challenges is that election interference “often involves an element of surreptitiousness,” with foreign and domestic actors using influence campaigns and allegations of election interference. their own needs.

“In other words, actors aren’t always honest about their true agenda or why they take the actions they take,” Daniel said. “This is often accompanied by misinformation and misinformation. But I think at its core it’s really about undermining trust in the system or preventing the system from working as intended.

Daniel also expressed concern about the number of adversaries, including nation-state actors, who are “trying to see whether or not election interference activities will serve their interests.”

“It’s not really just about the Russians,” Daniel added. “We can see the Chinese, Iranians and other foreign players trying things out. But there are also local players in this space now too.

Given the current political environment, where much of the electorate still doubts the results of the 2020 presidential election, even attempted election interference or exaggerated allegations of intrusion into voting systems can still wreak havoc. Last month, Wyman told the Senate Judiciary Committee how threats of physical violence directed at election administrators and the spread of election-related misinformation made it harder for officials to do their jobs.

Ed Smith, director of global services and North America certification for Smartmatic, said a key concern is that an adversary or nation-state can fuel disinformation campaigns by claiming they have hacked. an electoral system before early voting or election day, which could lower turnout. and cast doubt on the validity of the election results.

“To say that they somehow disrupted the system is really all they have to say,” Smith said. “Not that they even changed the results, but they just messed them up in some way. That can create a lack of trust in the system.

All panelists, however, said election security efforts have come a long way since the 2016 presidential election, with CISA and other federal agencies strengthening partnerships with state and local election officials, offering sessions intelligence information and expanding access to a variety of tools and resources to help deter cyber threats and physical threats to election infrastructure.

“We do a much better job of working with the intelligence community and the law enforcement community to provide intelligence and actionable information to national and local election officials in a timely manner so they can act and respond.” , Wyman said, noting that all 50 states and about 3,400 local jurisdictions are part of the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which offers officials a variety of cyber defense resources.

Wyman said CISA is currently focused on working with state and local election officials to bolster their physical and digital security efforts, including offering them the option to work with a protective security adviser who can travel to locations. polling stations or election offices upon request to provide officials with feedback on securing their facilities.

But even as threats to the security of election administrators have become more frequent, officials still remain on guard against foreign influence efforts that could lead to misleading accounts of vote tabulation or interfere more directly in the vote tabulation process. vote.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday extended the declaration of national emergency Executive Order 13848 – which imposes sanctions on foreign actors who interfere in US elections – for an additional year. The order, signed by former President Donald Trump in September 2018, requires the intelligence community to submit a report to the president within 45 days of the conclusion of a US election, detailing foreign interference efforts targeting the electoral infrastructure or political organizations, campaigns and candidates. The ordinance also allows sanctions to be imposed on foreign persons and entities identified by the authorities. The national emergency declaration was due to expire on September 12.

“The ability of persons located, in whole or in large part, outside the United States to interfere with or undermine public confidence in U.S. elections, including through unauthorized access to election infrastructure and campaign or covert distribution of propaganda and disinformation, continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” Biden said in the Sept. 7 advisory.

Leave a Reply