EXPLAINER: Threats to US election security grow more complex

Nov 3, 2022, 10:57 AM | Updated: Nov 5, 2022, 8:04 pm
FILE - Employees test voting equipment at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Oct. 19, 2022...

FILE - Employees test voting equipment at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Oct. 19, 2022, in Miami, in advance of the 2022 midterm elections on November 8. Top U.S. election security officials say protecting the nation's voting systems has become increasingly more challenging. That's due mostly to the embrace by millions of Americans of unfounded conspiracy theories and false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential race. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

BOSTON (AP) — Top U.S. election security officials say protecting the nation’s voting systems has become increasingly challenging.

That’s due mostly to the embrace by millions of Americans of unfounded conspiracy theories and false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential race.

With the midterm elections just days away , the director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Jen Easterly, and other officials say they have no evidence that election infrastructure has been altered by hostile actors to prevent voting or vote counting, compromise ballots or affect voter registration accuracy.

But they’re not lowering their guard. Disinformation is rampant. Foreign rivals are capable of potent cyber mischief. And the insider threat is considered greater than ever. On top of the physical threats and intimidation of elections officials — which is authorities’ overriding concern — security experts are particularly worried about tampering by those who work in local election offices or at polling stations.

“The current election threat environment is more complex than it has ever been,” Easterly told reporters in mid-October.

Global rivals also are expected to deepen longstanding disinformation efforts. The tense geopolitical moment means Russia, Iran and China may have fewer qualms about trying to disrupt the conduct of elections in key battlegrounds with cyber operations.

The spectrum of potential threats is wide: foreign ransomware gangs friendly with the Kremlin, conspiracy-obsessed local election officials, hostile voters bent on sabotage or political provocateurs trying to suppress the vote with dirty tricks or misinformation.

Here are some of the potential threats agencies are assessing through Election Day:

THREATS FROM WITHIN

Insider threats are a growing concern and could undermine serious strides made to secure voting systems — including migrating to hand-marked paper ballots and introducing reliable audits — since they were declared critical national infrastructure in January 2017.

Rogue election officials could provide access to voting systems to unauthorized individuals, as happened in Colorado and Georgia. Poll workers or even voters could try to access voter registration databases or equipment, or plant malware to taint election management systems.

Eddie Perez, a voting technology expert with the nonprofit OSET Institute, calls the repeated efforts to cast doubt on the integrity of voting equipment an element of a more broad “manufactured chaos” — intentional subversion of the nation’s elections to sow doubt.

Perez is among specialists who think attempts to discredit voting technology are one manifestation of efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to undermine trust in election results so Republican-controlled state legislatures — rather than voters — can decide the outcome of future races.

To counter the threats from insiders, federal authorities have conducted trainings and encouraged election officials to focus on limiting access to critical equipment, adding video surveillance and key cards on doors. They also encourage strict chain-of-custody rules for everything from ballots to voting scanners and tabulators.

Threats to public officials and election disruption attempts haver occurred with increasing frequency and intensity, federal and local law enforcement officials say. They are especially concerned about physical violence by protesters in highly contested districts during the post-election vote-counting process.

THREATS FROM ABROAD

U.S. officials have issued two main election-security advisories in the run-up to the Nov . 8 elections. They say malicious cyberactivity is unlikely to seriously disrupt or prevent voting and that hostile foreign states are apt to try to influence outcomes with “information operations.”

Foreign meddlers could launch cyberattacks or exaggerate the effects of relatively ineffectual attacks. They could spread misinformation about voting or voter fraud, try to incite violence or, if violence is already happening, fan the flames.

Hostile foreign bids to undermine U.S. democracy have risen since the Russian operation that hacked and then leaked Democratic emails to aid Trump in the 2016 presidential race. None have had anywhere near the impact, though.

Rivals constantly probe U.S. networks for vulnerabilities. Moscow may seek payback for Washington’s arming of Ukraine against its invasion. Iran resents U.S. support for anti-regime demonstrations triggered by the death in police custody of a young woman who defied head-scarf orthodoxy. As for China, relations are tense as Washington tries to throttle high-tech supplies to Beijing over its perceived hostility and growing authoritarianism.

There’s also the possibility that foreign actors might have breached election systems long ago and are waiting to pounce.

ATTACKS FROM FOREIGN ADVERSARIES

On Election Day, hostile foreign powers or sympathetic hackers could mount what are known as denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which render websites unreachable by flooding them with junk data. Targeting state and local government websites, such attacks could prevent voters from looking up registration information or polling locations, or knock offline sites that report election results after voting ends.

One group on the radar of the U.S. cybersecurity agency is Killnet, pro-Russia hackers who made a ruckus in October by organizing DDoS attacks on U.S. airport and state government websites.

Such attacks are mostly a nuisance and don’t destroy data or even breach sites. But they can frustrate voters and election poll workers, and become powerful grist for disinformation offensives. For example, Russian state media and fake news mills could amplify exaggerated claims of disruption, as occurred with the Killnet effort against the airport and government sites.

Another potential threat are Russian-speaking ransomware gangs that operate with little Kremlin interference. They have largely spared U.S. election infrastructure, which by now tends to be a lot better protected than many of the hospitals, schools and businesses they routinely plague.

Hack-and-leak operations also are possible. Sensitive data could be stolen from election or campaign websites, partially falsified and released online.

Cybersecurity firm Trellix reported a spike in phishing emails targeting county election workers in Pennsylvania and Arizona, both battleground states, over the summer seeking to harvest passwords and potentially interfere with the administration of absentee ballots.

“In many cases, the threat actors attempting to breach our election systems are the same ones who are conducting influence operations that seek to sow discord,” Easterly, the CISA director, said in mid-October.

That could include the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, a key player in the 2016 Russia destabilization campaign that favored Trump and sought to widen social divisions in the U.S. The group sought to manipulate public opinion by gaming social media platforms, including by purchasing online ads.

In a pre-election report, the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future said it was “almost certain” that networks associated with the group “are engaging in covert malign influence on a subset of the U.S. population.”

On Thursday, the social media analysis firm Graphika reported that suspected Russian operatives have been disseminating on far-right media platforms beginning Oct. 29 political cartoons disparaging Democratic candidates in tight statewide races in Georgia, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.

___

Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the elections at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

An Iranian flag and a scarf depicting U.S. flag are sold at the Souq Waqif Market in Doha, Qatar, T...
Associated Press

US-Iran match reflects a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.S. team’s must-win World Cup match against Iran will be closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes. Critics of Iran say it has fomented war and […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Ex-majority leader jailed for DUI is leaving Kansas Senate

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas lawmaker who was forced out of one of the state Senate’s most powerful jobs following an arrest for drunken driving and speeding the wrong way on two interstate highways is planning to leave the Legislature in early January. Former Senate Majority Leader Sen. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, confirmed […]
11 hours ago
Community members, including Walmart employees, gather for a candlelight vigil at Chesapeake City P...
Associated Press

Survivor of Virginia Walmart mass shooting files $50M suit

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A Walmart employee who survived last week’s mass shooting at a store in Virginia has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the company for allegedly continuing to employ the shooter — a store supervisor — “who had known propensities for violence, threats and strange behavior.” The lawsuit, which appears to be […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Defense: Man had no reason to help family in killings of 8

WAVERLY, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio man accused of helping his family kill eight members of another family had no reason to take part and wasn’t even there, his attorney told trial jurors Tuesday during closing arguments. George Wagner IV, his brother and parents were charged in the 2016 shooting deaths of seven adults and […]
11 hours ago
China's President Xi Jinping arrives to attend the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting during the Asia-Pa...
Associated Press

China to increase nuclear warheads to 1,500, Pentagon warns

WASHINGTON (AP) — China is expanding its nuclear force and is on pace to nearly quadruple the number of warheads it has by 2035, rapidly closing its gap with the United States, the Pentagon said in a report released Tuesday. The report builds on the military’s warning last year that China is expanding its nuclear […]
11 hours ago
Associated Press

Connecticut woman sentenced to year in jail for voyeurism

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — A wealthy Connecticut woman whose criminal case file was sealed from public view was sentenced Tuesday to one year in jail for secretly recording three people, including a minor, in a manner involving sexual desire. Hadley Palmer, 54, of Greenwich, appeared in Stamford Superior Court, where her lawyer had requested another […]
11 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
...
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
EXPLAINER: Threats to US election security grow more complex