HOW ARE WE STOPPING ELECTION INTERFERENCE?
Senior Trump administration officials warned earlier this month that Russia is trying to interfere in November’s midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election and vowed to combat Moscow’s aggression. The high-profile alarm, given from the White House briefing room, was striking for the officials’ unequivocal warnings. “This is a threat we need to take extremely seriously and to tackle and respond to with fierce determination and focus,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. Here is what you need to know about Russia’s interference and American efforts to fight it.
How is Russia interfering with American elections?
Russia is trying to spread propaganda on hot-button issues using social media, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, has said, highlighting what he called persistent and pervasive efforts. Moscow’s strategy, he said, is to exacerbate sociopolitical divisions.
Coats again singled out Russia, saying its disinformation campaign is ongoing. “We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats said at the White House. Wray also cited attempts to manipulate news stories, spread disinformation and escalate divisive issues.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials are also looking out for voter suppression efforts, illegal campaign financing, hacks targeting elected officials and voting infrastructure, he said.
Which threats are most pervasive?
The target of most Russian activity, intelligence officials say, is social media and other digital avenues for spreading disinformation. Facebook said this week it had shut down 32 pages and accounts suspected of having ties to Russia.
As for computer security, experts see political campaigns as vulnerable, particularly in state and local elections, where campaigns frequently lack the money and expertise to forestall attacks. Microsoft detected spear-phishing attacks, apparently by Russian intelligence, targeting computers of two 2018 election candidates, a senior company official said last month; Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat seeking re-election, said last week that her Senate office computer network was one of them.
“I hope I’m wrong. But I think we’ll see attacks on campaigns in which the Russians in particular have already stolen information,” said Eric Rosenbach, an intelligence veteran and cybersecurity expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Nationally, the two major political parties stepped up security after the 2016 breach of computers at the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Voting machines, often described as old, insecure and lacking a paper trail, are more secure than widely understood. Four in 5 Americans vote on machines that incorporate paper ballots or backups. Many state voter-registration databases also have been hardened against outside attack since 2016. While it is possible to hack voting devices to rig an election, experts say, intruding into enough of them to change the outcome would be extremely difficult.
How are ballots being secured?
Election officials and the Department of Homeland Security set up a council to coordinate the response to threats, and the department offers security scans, equipment and other services to election officials nationwide. Top state election officials are gaining security clearances to see and assess threats, and in February, all 50 states and more than 1,000 localities opened a center to exchange data. Virtually every state has taken steps to lock down its election processes.
A public-private committee has also approved a new standard for voting equipment that will significantly improve security. More voting machines than ever have verifiable paper backups, and nearly all should have them by 2020, said David J. Becker, the director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. States also are adopting more advanced auditing techniques for vote counts.
What are intelligence agencies doing?
The most important work
the intelligence community has done, according to current and former officials, is to penetrate foreign networks and spy on Russian groups conducting the attacks. The agencies have also monitored networks in the United States to try to detect information campaigns as they begin.
“They are gathering intelligence,” said Michael Sussmann, a former Justice Department official who is now a partner at Perkins Coie. “They are trying to figure out what our adversaries are planning and what is being done. That includes penetrating foreign networks and other kinds of spying they do. And they are doing surveillance on U.S. networks to detect influence of all kinds.”
Intelligence agencies are working more closely with technology companies, though some firms have said too little intelligence has been shared, hampering Silicon Valley’s efforts to detect threats and warn Americans.
Coats has said the intelligence agencies and White House consider threats to the electoral system a top priority. Coats has called not just on technology companies to boost protections but also to make sure Americans take steps to verify the information they consume. “It is essential that we all apply critical thinking to all sorts of information,” he said.
Coats’ appearance at the White House was important for informing the public, said Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama administration official and the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Building resiliency in the population is really important to inoculate against the effect of some of this,” she said.
What else should the agencies be doing?
Cybersecurity experts praised Thursday’s briefing as an important step to bringing high-level focus to the fight against interference. But they said that to deter Russia, Moscow needs to believe that the United States will impose costs beyond the sanctions and other punishments it has doled out, and that requires President Donald Trump to make clear he will act against interference.
“If you are going to stop what is going on, that could require a presidential-level decision,” Sussmann said.
A technician works in October 2016 to prepare voting machines to be used in the presidential election in Philadelphia. Intelligence and law enforcement officials are looking for ways to safeguard the vote against interference.
Daisy Capote, a Miami-Dade election support specialist, checks voting machines for accuracy at the MiamiDade Election Department headquarters Aug. 8 in Doral, Florida.