FBI, CISA Warn of Election Results Disinformation CampaignsNation-States, Others Could Try to Undermine Confidence in Election Process
With less than 45 days to go before November election, the FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a warning Tuesday that nation-state hackers and cybercriminals may attempt to spread disinformation regarding the final vote tallies as a way to undermine confidence in the voting process.
The warning comes as federal, state and local election agencies are concerned about delays in counting votes in the Nov. 3 election as more voters rely on mail-in ballots this year due to COVID-19.
The agencies note that nation-state actors, as well as cybercriminals, could create legitimate-looking websites, attack and alter existing websites and use social media to spread disinformation to discredit the electoral process and sow doubts about the results.
"Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections' results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections' illegitimacy," the alert states.
"The public should also be aware that if foreign actors or cybercriminals were able to successfully change an election-related website, the underlying data and internal systems would remain uncompromised."
Other federal agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, have issued reports and assessments that found election-related disinformation campaigns are an ongoing issue and that nation-states are using new interference tactics (see: US Intelligence Adds More Details on Election Interference).
William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, noted that Russia, China and Iran are all seeking to influence the November election and are using various means to achieve their goals. For example, they're attempting to use social media and other means to spread disinformation.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it had removed 13 accounts and two pages from its social media platform in August that had links to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian group that waged a disinformation campaign in 2016 (see: Russian Election Misinformation Campaign Re-Emerges).
On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had removed another 155 accounts, 11 pages, nine groups and six Instagram accounts that appeared to originate in China and violated the social media company's rules against "inauthentic behavior" as well as spreading spam.
While most of the pages and accounts most recently removed targeted Southeast Asia, Facebook noted that some also were designed with the United States in mind. "In the U.S., where this network focused the least and gained almost no following, they posted content both in support of and against presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Donald Trump," according to Tuesday's update.
Tom Kellermann, the head of cybersecurity strategy at VMware who served as a cybersecurity adviser to former President Barack Obama, notes that countries such as Russia and China are likely to step up their cyber activities before the election, and the FBI, CISA and other government agencies will likely issue more warnings.
"Cyber campaigns of malicious intent abound," Kellermann told Information Security Media Group. "We are at a tipping point. I hope Americans begin to appreciate that cybersecurity is a patriotic imperative and not a partisan ploy."
Calling Attention to Disinformation
In Sept. 17 testimony at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that agents had been tracking several multifaceted foreign threats seeking to influence national policies and public opinion.
"The FBI and our interagency partners remain concerned about and focused on the covert and overt influence measures used by certain adversaries in their attempts to sway U.S. voters' preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States and undermine the American people's confidence in our democratic processes," Wray testified.
This year's election cycle, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, provides ample opportunity for hostile foreign actors to conduct disinformation campaigns to mislead and undermine confidence in democratic institutions, Wray said.
CISA Director Christopher Krebs told ISMG in August that his agency has been ramping up its efforts to offer local and state government election officials technical support, training and cyber hygiene exercises needed to ensure a more secure election in November.
"We are better off today than we were four years back," Krebs said, referring to foreign interference that marred the 2016 election. "The metrics support that conclusion."