At least three foreign groups have been confirmed by the United States Department of Home Land Security and Microsoft to have attempted to hack the ongoing America’s election process. A record 150 million Americans are expected to vote to decide who will be president between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The issue of foreign meddling in the U.S election is not a new allegation. In the 2016 controversial presidential election, the foreign meddling was purportedly in favour of Donald Trump against Hilary Clinton.
“Let me say that for anyone on this call who still wonders, whether foreign adversaries are trying to interfere in the United States’ 2020 presidential election, the answer is clear, yes,” said David Levine, an Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall fund of the United States, as he took more than 200 journalists worldwide on the U.S election security.
Microsoft names U.S common enemies as hackers
On September 10th, 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.
The Microsoft report which detailed efforts by three major foreign hacking groups targeted the campaigns along with other political organizations, individuals, and think tanks, including the German Marshall fund of the United States of which ASV is a part, which Levine works with.
“…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. A sentiment consistent with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Communications on election security threats, including its recently published Homeland Threat Assessments. The warning from Microsoft is a reminder that our election systems must be resilient against unforeseen problems that are likely to arise during the 2020 presidential election.”
Following the hacking report of the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security provided the critical infrastructure designation for U.S. election infrastructure, which permits the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize support for state and local election jurisdictions. This includes information sharing on threats, monitoring election systems, conducting vulnerability assessments, and providing assistance on identifying or responding to threats.
“I just want to make a brief note about post-election activities. There was a September 22nd, 2020 public service announcement from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that noted an awareness that foreign adversaries could attempt to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections in an effort to discredit the electoral process and undermine U.S. democratic institutions.”
A fortnight ago, Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, who administers the United States Election Project, projected that a record-setting 150 million people (65 percent of the U.S population) would vote in this election, which would represent the highest such percentage in more than a century.
Hacking threats amidst a wide use of mail-ballot
State and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify election final results in order to ensure that every legally cast vote is accurately counted. And the increased use of mail ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night.
While there’s no evidence of nefarious conduct, Levine believes that foreign actors could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by sharing information that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber-attacks, targeting election infrastructure, election fraud, and other problems with the intent to convince the public of the elections legitimacy or illegitimacy.
“In my role as the Elections Integrity Fellow at ASD, I’m regularly assessing the conduct of these elections and their vulnerabilities. Assessing them with regards to electoral infrastructure, administration and policies, and trying to come up with recommendations and work with the partners to raise awareness on threats and recommend mitigation measures that try and help ensure that any vulnerabilities that do exist can be mitigated accordingly,” he said.
He said voters should feel confident that safeguards are in place to protect their votes from cyber-attacks and technical problems that could arise for the November, 2020 presidential election.
President Trump has continuously denounced the mail-in voting, declaring that “with Universal Mail-In Voting, 2020 will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history”. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has encouraged his supporters to vote as soon as possible. On October 10th, Forbes published that among the nine states that provide party registration data, Democrats had returned more than 2 million ballots nationally, while Republicans had returned approximately 891,000, quoting the U.S Election Project data.
But robust system can prevent meddling
Mr. Levine outlines the opportunities States should explore to make their systems even more robust ahead of the election. He acknowledges that substantial progress has been made since the 2016 election in the implementation of the kind of backup and security features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will be counted even in the event of a successful cyber-attack or other unforeseen system failure. “One of those steps that Feds have taken is to ensure that there will be a paper record of nearly every vote for 2020. In the past, there were some voters that previously voted on paperless voting machines, and there’ll be very few of them that go around.
The director for the Cyber Division of the Department of Homeland Security recently estimated that 92% of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited. Even in jurisdictions that use paperless machines, an increased demand for mail in voting, in part because of the Coronavirus, will likely lead to even more voters voting on a paper ballot.
“It’s also worth noting that voters that are not using paperless voting machines are not in what we call tipping points States (states that would give a winning presidential candidate) or any of the States most likely to determine control of the U.S. Senate. If voting machines were to go down, we see the vast majority of States, including tipping point States having backup or emergency paper ballots in place, so that again, we can have a situation where voters can continue to cast ballots in an uninterrupted manner, and the likelihood of there being delays, if electronic voting systems go down again is smaller.
David Levine said more and more States have valid tracking tools, which also allow voters to be able to track where their mail ballot process is with regards to the USPS system, which allows voters to confirm if their ballot has been sent out to them. “If in fact it’s been accepted or been received by election officials, and then whether it’s subsequently been accepted and that helps inform them as to whether or not they may have to go vote in person on election day.”
According to him, the vast majority of States have a number of protocols in checks and balances in place to ensure that mail-in voting is secure, including signature verification protocols to ensure that the signature election officials have on file matches what’s on the mail-in ballot that’s been submitted to their offices.
“We’ve seen the Department of Homeland Security along with other partners provide a whole host of resources to help ensure that state and local election officials are even more secure with regards to our election systems this time around.