2020 election security: Vulnerabilities, lockdowns and disinformation | Cyber Work Podcast
Experts told the Russian Service; Voices of America what points of the American electoral system need to be strengthened
The security of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, even before the coronavirus pandemic, was an issue that raised concerns among experts in Washington as November approached..
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 outbreak, this concern has only intensified, and experts call for urgent measures to ensure the protection of the electoral process – both from the informational and from the technical side..
For many of them, the events of 2016 are still fresh in their minds, when Russia’s influence on the American electoral system was massive and extremely unexpected. It included both “active events” on social networks and direct hacks of computers – both party and those used by election commissions..
As the New York Times columnist recalled at an event on May 19 at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) David Sanger (David Sanger), the interference of Russian hackers in voter registration systems in 2016 was proven in at least two states – Illinois and Arizona, and the total number of states where the voter lists were “edited” by hackers could reach 39.
Head of the Defense of Democracy Project at CSIS Susan Spaulding (Suzanne Spaulding), in response to a question from the Russian Service of the Voice of America about how well the lessons of 2016 have been learned, said that “significant progress has been made in strengthening the voter registration system.”.
At the same time, an expert who was engaged in cybersecurity in the post of US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security in 2016 believes it is important that if the system is still hacked, changes in the voter lists introduced there by hackers are eliminated at an early stage, and not at the last moment: “Time is a very important factor: in 2016, people came to polling stations and only there found that they were not on the list, or that their first or last name had been changed, and so on. And there was no time to eliminate all this “.
Preparedness for the unexpected, learning “civic literacy”
“When paper ballot papers are sent out by mail (and if the lists are hacked, there will be disruptions in the process), it is important that people who know that they should receive a ballot, but did not receive it, have time to contact the authorities state and ask why the newsletter did not come, ”warns Susan Spaulding.
In addition, the CSIS expert is confident that the psychological aspects in the security of elections are as important as the technical ones: “We can do everything to prevent malicious actions in cyberspace from reaching their goal, but we must admit that they do not have to be. successful. Those who do them can simply declare that they have achieved success. “.
According to Spaulding, if public confidence in the elections is undermined in principle, then protection from hackers will not be very effective in maintaining the integrity of the elections, so it is necessary to ensure that the system is well verifiable: “And here we are talking about paper ballots, ballots sent to voters – this is easy audit “.
Susan Spaulding said that the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which she served on, has proposed a number of measures in its final report released this spring:
“We recommended to increase the ability of society to resist (attempts to disrupt the course of elections – ed.) To increase media literacy, and in a broader sense – to raise the level of civic education and involvement of the population. They want to make Americans lose faith in democracy, lose faith in its institutions, and the power of civic education is to remind how important democracy is. “.
Cybersecurity experts from nongovernmental organizations, such as the Global Cyber Alliance (GCA), also offer their own methods of countering the “hacking” of the US elections. GCA Director for America Megan Stifel (Megan Stifel), former director of cybersecurity at the US National Security Council, in an interview with the Russian service of the Voice of America, talks about one of the characteristics of the American electoral system, which is both its strength and weakness:
“The US election process and its system are very decentralized, which can be both a challenge and a strength. We cannot oblige all election commissions to comply with any specific technical standards or strict rules, but we can work out recommendations, observing which, election commissions will be able to ensure cyber protection of a sufficiently good level. Of course, the question of resources immediately arises here: are there enough of them locally to purchase modern systems, whether they are enough to finance the work of specialists of the proper level and train people to maintain such systems. Perhaps help with such funds could come from the federal level “.
“We at GCA are ready to tell those who need it about technical and non-technical ways to improve the security of elections: from secure Wi-Fi networks and databases, two-level authentication and regular software updates to other tools. From the extensive recommendations on computer security published back in 2018, we made a squeeze – about a dozen “toolboxes” that are most understandable to use and completely free. There is a whole set of necessary steps, by taking which, we will be able to achieve sufficient reliability of the electoral system, ”says Megan Stifel..
The expert is also confident that the US population should be better prepared to resist the attempts of foreign players to undermine the credibility of the election process: “People should distinguish between trusted sources of information and unverified ones. For example, on social networks, they must distinguish news and messages coming from the official pages of electoral bodies or local authorities from messages from certain groups about which nothing is known. In addition, officials need to develop strategies now in the event of various electoral incidents related to foreign interference, so as not to look for ways to resolve situations at the last moment. “.
Intervention in 2020 elections will be “more sophisticated”
“There is no reason for Russia or any other foreign player not to use this year’s elections to their advantage,” he said. Nina Yankovich (Nina Jankowicz), disinformation specialist at the Wilson Center in Washington. – The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic should have united us, and as a result showed how divided we are. We have not passed even the simplest laws that would enable Americans to understand how online sources influence them. In addition, we have not increased funding for the infrastructure of our elections. We are not doing anything to make foreign interference in our electoral and democratic process dear to those who carry it out, so it [this interference] will continue. “.
Former coordinator of sanctions policy of the US Department of State, expert of the Washington “Atlantic Council” Daniel Freed (Daniel Fried) agrees that interference is to be expected, and even more sophisticated than in 2016. He also believes that active support for extremist groups will continue: “There will be less blatant falsification and use of bots, more use of authentic sources and more skillful mixing with real people. Every society has its own extremists, they do not need to be invented. You just need to find them, give them resources and support. This is what they will do. “.
Experts believe that the use of already well-known narratives previously used in disinformation campaigns will continue: discrediting the democratic world order, its institutions and leaders, as well as fanning existing conflicts. Emerging events such as the COVID-19 pandemic will be used as excuses.
“We will see how the Russian government will say that, thanks to the authoritarian response to the pandemic, they have a small number of cases of infection, although their numbers may be invented,” predicts Nina Yankovic. , more than 70,000 deaths – this is what democracy has led to “.
An analyst at the Wilson Center notes that, due to more aggressive social media policies to find and remove bot accounts and “artificial activity”, there is now less overt disinformation than before the 2016 elections. But, like the means of fighting fakes, disinformation is also improving, recalls Nina Yankovich:
“The misinformation has now gone to closed groups, encrypted messengers like WhatsApp, or parts of the internet with less traffic like Reddit, 4chan or Gab platforms. We also see more and more “secondary infection sites”: sites that distribute Russian propaganda and disinformation, pretending to be local media. In the US, there have been examples when a group or page that looked like a local media outlet or organization redirected all traffic to a Russian site, Sputnik or RT, or a site specially tailored for this. “.
New Intervention Sanctions: A Deterrent Measure
Sanctions are a proven, widely used method of countering interference, and the United States has adopted quite a few of them over the past couple of years: in particular, in 2018 they were imposed for Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, when the Internet Research Agency (AI) was sanctioned, or “Troll Factory” mentioned in the investigation by Robert Mueller. In September 2019, the list was replenished with four more companies and seven individuals from the entourage of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who finances AII.
However, according to Daniel Fried, sanctions specifically against disinformation did not have a significant effect. In an interview with the Russian service to Voice of America, Fried also noted the complexity of their targeted use against those who directly create disinformation: “It is unrealistic and almost foolish to think that you can impose sanctions on any particular bot or troll. But you can go higher – find an opportunity to identify those who finance it “.
Nina Jankovic agrees and emphasizes the diminishing effectiveness of sanctions during the pandemic: “Travel is not taking place anyway, and trade has slowed down, so the sanctions have even less effect. When our intelligence infiltrated the networks of the same AI in 2018 before the midterm elections in the United States to block them on election day, this, I believe, was much more effective. “.
At the same time, Daniel Fried considers sanctions, in principle, a key instrument of the West’s countering Russian aggression and emphasizes their effectiveness in other cases: “They were effective in curbing further Russian aggression in Ukraine. And if it seems to someone that there was no such threat, I would suggest that he familiarize himself with Putin’s flirtation with Novorossia, which, according to plans, was supposed to include 40% of the territory of Ukraine. The sanctions also convinced the Kremlin to negotiate in the Minsk format, which, for all its shortcomings, still forced it to recognize Donbass as Ukrainian territory, which is strikingly different from Russia’s position on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “.
According to Daniel Fried, the new sanctions may also be a response to new facts of interference in the American elections. However, he says that it is better to give such an answer jointly with Europe: “The question is not only what the United States will do, but also what the West as a whole can do together, because a jointly developed policy will be much more effective.”.
Reporter for the Russian Voice of America Service in Moscow. Collaborates with Voice of America since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and host of programs for the BBC Russian Service and Radio Liberty. Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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