How US security officials are watching for threats ahead of Election Day

Chris Krebs speaks Oct. 24, 2019, at CyberTalks in Washington, D.C. (Scoop News Group)

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FBI Director Christopher Wray once called the 2018 midterm elections a “dress rehearsal for the big show” of protecting the 2020 presidential election from foreign interference.

The big show is finally here, and American officials say they are pulling out all the stops to keep it secure.

U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and national security agencies have for weeks been in an “enhanced operational posture” to share any election-related threats with state and local officials, said Chris Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The week before Election Day, which is Nov. 3, those security efforts will kick into overdrive.

Officials from the Department of Defense, FBI, the Election Assistance Commission, political campaigns and the private sector are scheduled to gather at CISA’s operations center outside of Washington, D.C. The U.S. Postal Service, which is playing an expanded role in this year’s election with the increase in mail-in ballots, will also have a representative on hand.

“It gives us an opportunity to share that information in near-real-time to understand what’s happening…detecting issues at the soonest, smallest opportunity, and then making sure that it doesn’t spiral into a bigger issue,” Krebs said in an interview during CyberTalks, the annual summit produced by CyberScoop.

The day before Election Day, federal officials will open up a “situational awareness room” that will allow thousands of election officials across the country to communicate with federal officials about any cyber, man-made or natural-disaster threats that they’re seeing.

Officials are more vigilant for cyber-threats after the sweeping Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. This year, there have been digital shots across the bow, but the malicious cyber activity has not reached levels from four years ago, according to U.S. officials and private-sector analysts.

CISA and the FBI on Oct. 9 warned that foreign government-linked hackers had been breaking into federal, state and local networks. The malicious cyber activity had in some cases “resulted in unauthorized access to elections support systems,” the advisory said. However, there was “no evidence to date that integrity of elections data has been compromised,” officials said, adding that the hacking campaign did not appear to single out state and local networks “because of their proximity to elections information.” Suspected Russian hackers were behind the activity, according to a private-sector advisory obtained by CyberScoop

Executives from Microsoft and Facebook, two of the world’s most powerful technology companies, say they are keeping watch for any eleventh-hour effort by foreign spies to interfere in the election. Facebook in late September said it removed a string of fake accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russia-based troll farm that interfered in the 2016 election.

Krebs hailed the more proactive moves by social media platforms to curb influence operations.

“It’s not just the federal government; it’s the private sector, it’s security researchers, it’s academia, it’s international partners,” Krebs said. “We have more of a coordinated pushback and response in the furtherance of a secure 2020 election than ever before.”

It will likely take longer than usual to tally and certify election results this year because of the surge in mail-in voting. And the aftermath of the election will be ripe ground for disinformation campaigns, experts have warned. With that in mind, CISA’s operations center will likely be monitoring for threats to the election until all of the results have been certified, Krebs said.

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2016 elections, 2020 elections, Chris Krebs, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), CyberTalks 2020, election security, information sharing, Russia, Russian interference
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