During both the 2016 and 2018 elections, Russia-sponsored hackers attempted to disrupt the U.S. election process by spreading disinformation via social media and by hacking into local voter databases and voting machines. Malicious actors, both foreign and domestic, continue to challenge U.S. election security and are likely to learn from their past efforts and be more effective going forward.
While federal and state governments are more aware of and prepared for these types of election meddling, several serious threats to the upcoming election still remain.
Five Imminent Threats to Election Security
Despite the best efforts of state and federal authorities, these five impending threats to the 2020 Presidential Election still remain.
The most significant threat to the electoral process comes from attempts to disinform the voting public. These influence operations often come from foreign actors, including Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). The IRA uses social media and fake news websites to plant and disseminate inflammatory posts about socially divisive issues. The goal is not just to promote a particular candidate or party but to cause Americans to doubt the integrity of the entire electoral system.
2. Cyber Espionage
Another way that malicious actors can disrupt the upcoming elections is to target political parties and candidates with cyber espionage operations. These typically involve hacking into a campaign’s servers using spear-phishing and other techniques and then releasing sensitive information to opposing campaigns or the general public. The most notable case of political cyber espionage to date involved the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, but that wasn’t the only such incident. Microsoft reports that there were more than 800 instances of cyber espionage against political campaigns in 2019 alone.
3. Infrastructure Attacks
The cyber threat to the country’s voting infrastructure is real and substantial. A Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed that all 50 states experienced cyberattacks on their voting systems during the 2016 election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the voting machines in 41 states are powered by computers that are at least a decade old, many of which are running Windows 2000 and similarly obsolete operating systems. Even more vulnerable are state voter registration databases, many of which can be accessed over the Internet. Tampering with these databases can remove scores of voters from the registration lists or mark legitimate voters as felons unable to vote.
4. Ransomware Attacks
According to Emisoft, a security firm, the number of ransomware attacks of all types increased by 41% from 2018 to 2019, with many of these attacks targeted at state and local governments. Disturbingly, ransomware could already be installed on voting machines, waiting to be activated on election day. This would prevent people from placing their votes and disrupt the entire election process. Governments would be forced to pay large ransoms, typically in cyber currency, to free up their machines for voters.
5. Pandemic and Mail-In Voting Issues
The final threat to election security comes in reaction to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Voters are understandably fearful of visiting crowded polling places during the pandemic, which could depress turnout.
In lieu of this situation, many citizens are opting to cast their votes via mail. Unfortunately, mail-in voting comes with its own set of issues, chief of which is the operational issues of the U.S. Postal Service being able to deliver a record number of mail-in ballots and local authorities having to count all those ballots in a timely fashion. In addition, some politicians claim that voting by mail casts doubt on the integrity of election results, although the FBI says there is no evidence that mail-in ballots result in voter fraud.
Who is Threatening Election Security?
Today’s threats to the country’s election security come from both foreign and domestic sources.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) warns that the most notable threats to the 2020 election come from outside the United States. Foreign adversaries view interference in the election process as an opportunity to destroy people’s confidence in the democratic process and increase conflict between different societal groups. These entities use both traditional and cyber espionage tools to influence the U.S. electorate and advance their countries’ interests.
NCSC Director William Evania says that the three countries that pose the greatest threat to the upcoming election are Russia, China, and Iran. Russia, which mounted multiple efforts to influence the 2016 campaign, is the most serious threat, intent on dividing the country and undermining democratic systems.
Not all threats to election security come from outside the country. The FBI warns that domestic extremists are plotting against the government and the voting system. These extremists have been observed threatening candidates and events, including campaign rallies and political conventions. Some have also attacked the offices of political parties and individual candidates.
FBI Director Christopher Wray notes that the biggest domestic threat to the election process comes from white supremacist groups. The Anti-Defamation League reports that these far-right groups were responsible for 77% of murders committed by domestic extremist groups over the past decade.
Responding to Election Threats
The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and other federal and state government entities are working overtime to ensure the security of the upcoming presidential elections. Individual campaigns have strengthened their internal security, including moving to secure communications systems such as AWS Wickr. The goal is to conduct a free and fair election with minimal undue influence from outside actors – and the utmost confidence in the final results.
Contact us today to learn more about AWS Wickr, the secure communications platform used by governments and political campaigns.