The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - WEEKLY EXPLAINER - Michael Wines and Ju­lian E. Barnes, New York Times

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.

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