Midterms raise fears of Russian cyberattacks
Russia is likely to deploy a range of cyber weapons on the United States and its election systems during this year’s midterm election cycle as tensions continue to escalate amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Moscow has so far shown restraint against the U.S. despite escalating sanctions that have damaged Russia’s economy, but experts predict the Kremlin will unleash a range of cyber weapons in an attempt to interfere in the midterms — from disinformation campaigns to efforts to hack into the election system.
“I do think that the chances are higher that we see a ramp up in cyber activity by the Russians as the conflict drags on; it’s less of what I would have expected at this point, but the elections are certainly in play,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University.
Russia’s overarching goal is to pit Americans against each other and micro-target specific voters, especially those living in swing states, with information that aligns with their preconceived beliefs.
“The Russians’ goal is to create internal discord in the United States,” Jaffer said.
He added that Russia’s decision on how active it will be in the midterms will depend on its goals for the 2024 presidential election, as well as how much support the U.S. is providing to Ukraine’s militarily.
“It would not be surprising at all if the Russians sought to influence the 2022 elections, particularly given the situation that they’re facing in Ukraine and the active U.S. support for Ukraine,” Jaffer added.
Experts expect Russians to deploy disinformation campaigns along with cyberattacks, including spreading malware and hacking into the emails of election officials, to disrupt networks and gain access to confidential information like voter registration rolls.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, Russians attempted to penetrate the voter rolls of at least 20 states prior to the 2016 presidential election. In a 2018 interview with NBC News, Jeanette Manfra, the former head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said that a small number of those targeted states “were actually successfully penetrated.”
Jaffer said the targeting of voter rolls and launching cyberattacks that disrupt the networks of voting machines could undermine public confidence in the election, even if they don’t change the outcome.
In the early days of the Russia-Ukraine war, U.S. intelligence officials incorrectly predicted that Russia would launch massive and destructive cyberattacks against the West, especially following economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its European allies.
The apparent absence of cyber retaliation against the U.S. has experts and lawmakers scratching their heads.
“I am still relatively amazed that they have not really launched the level of maliciousness that their cyber arsenal includes,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during a March webinar.
However, cybersecurity experts and state elections officials suspect that the Russians are saving their cyberattacks for the midterm elections, when millions of Americans head to the polls in a deeply partisan political climate.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) told The Hill she expects Russia to deploy its cyber playbook to create division along party lines and suppress voter turnout.
“If recent elections are any indication, we will again be finding election disinformation and cyber threats from foreign adversaries,” Griswold said.
Griswold, a former attorney who took office in 2019, said one of her main goals as secretary of state is to stop the spread of disinformation, especially during election season, and guide voters on the best ways to get accurate information.
In 2020, Griswold created a unit within her office aimed to protect Colorado’s elections from disinformation campaigns, foreign interference and cyberattacks.
“We’ve learned from our allies in eastern Europe who have been targets of Russian disinformation on elections prior to us that the number one tool is readiness,” Griswold said.
“That means making sure that Americans are aware that there are foreign governments that are trying to divide us through very sophisticated social media outreach.”
Griswold and cybersecurity experts who spoke to The Hill agreed that Russia will likely try to tap into social issues that polarizes the U.S., including immigration, gun control and abortion.
Experts also noted that Russia is using the same divide-and-conquer tactics against French voters around issues like immigration.
Russia attempted to interfere in the 2017 French presidential election, when then-candidate Emmanuel Macron first ran, but the French government was successful in blocking it.
Ivana Stradner, an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it is important for U.S. and European Union leaders to educate citizens about the various ways Russia has tried to manipulate and divide the West with the spread of disinformation on social media, especially during elections.
“Russia will do everything to undermine NATO as well as the EU cohesion because Russia’s main goal is certainly to destroy the international liberal order,” Stradner said.
Stradner added that disinformation campaigns are the most effective way to meddle in elections because they play on the psychology and human behavior to identify triggers that can make people think or vote a certain way.
Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, said it is disconcerting to see some U.S. politicians and media personalities affiliated with the far right help Russia in those efforts.
“Part of this is a major domestic problem where extremists on the right have embraced foreign disinformation for their own political game,” Griswold said. “It’s un-American, un-democratic, and it’s destabilizing American elections.”
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