Hyderabad: We have seen polls being rigged by extremists and polling booths being ‘captured’ by political parties in some elections in India. In the United States however, the threat this time is different.
According to poll analysts and security experts, the danger of foreign adversaries trying to interfere in the US 2020 presidential election, using different modes including cyber-attacks on political groups, the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the entire election infrastructure itself was clear and present.
Talking to a select group of journalists from different countries as part of the Foreign Press Centers’ Elections 2020 Virtual Reporting Tour, David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, confirmed that ‘foreign adversaries were trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential election’.
“On September 10, Microsoft reported that it was seeing increasing cyber-attacks originating in Russia, China and Iran targeting its customers, including attacks against political groups and the presidential campaigns of President Trump and former Vice President, Joe Biden. In a blog post, Microsoft detailed efforts by three major foreign hacking groups to target the campaigns along with other political organisations, individuals, and think-tanks, including the German Marshall Fund,” he said.
And while the targets of these attacks were not election officials, Microsoft warned that the attacks were concerning for the whole ecosystem and made clear that foreign activity groups were stepping up their efforts to target the 2020 election, Levine said, adding that this was a sentiment consistent with the US Department of Homeland Security communications on election security threats, including its recently published Homeland Threat Assessments.
The increased use of mail ballots due to Covid-19 protocols and the coronavirus pandemic could leave officials with incomplete results on election night. Foreign actors could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by sharing fake news of voter suppression, cyber-attacks, election fraud and other problems to shake the confidence of the public in the election system, he said.
Technical attacks too were not ruled out. In 2016, though there is no evidence to suggest that any votes were altered or the outcomes modified or tallied, in at least one State it was known that voter registration data could have been altered or modified.
“It can be a concern because if somebody goes to vote on poll day, and they go to check in on an electronic poll book and their information on that poll book is suddenly either removed or been modified. That could impact their eligibility to cast a ballot,” Levine noted.
One of the steps taken to counter such possibilities was to ensure that there would be a paper record of nearly every vote for 2020. The Cyber Division of the Department of Homeland Security recently estimated that 92 percent of voters would vote on paper ballots that can be audited.
“There’s an increasing number of jurisdictions and States in the US that have electronic poll books, which are laptops or computers poll workers use instead of paper lists to look up voters. In the event that those e-poll books become inoperable, a vast majority of States have a backup paper process so that voting can continue uninterrupted,” he said, adding that most States had a number of protocols in place to ensure that mail-in voting too was secure. Those include signature verification protocols too, while there were optical scanners to scan ballots. State and local election officials had received more cyber security training as well to help ensure that any vulnerability could be identified and mitigated.
As intelligence and law enforcement communities have put out over the past four years, attacks and influence campaigns continue, and there are information voids that adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran, try and exploit.
“It’s really critical that voters turn out and vote. If we had complete voter turnout, that would go long ways to mitigating any kind of foreign interference threats,” Levine added.
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