Senior DHS official says agency not seeing ‘coordinated’ foreign election interference

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The director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said Friday that he has not seen a foreign effort to influence U.S. elections so far this year.

“Compared to where things were in 2016, we are not seeing that level of coordinated, determined cyber activity from adversaries,” CISA Director Christopher Krebs said during a virtual event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “We absolutely have better visibility across the networks, and we are just not seeing that same level of activity that we saw in 2016.”

Election security is one of CISA’s main priorities, particularly after Russian interference in the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, during which Russian agents targeted election systems in all 50 states, launched a disinformation campaign on social media designed to favor now-President Trump, and hacked into the Democratic National Committee networks. 

Krebs emphasized Friday that due to enhanced coordination between the federal government and state and local election officials, along with increased cybersecurity of systems and awareness of the threat of foreign interference, the 2020 elections will be “the most secure election in modern history.”

He noted that one major enhancement had been the placement of intrusion detection systems in all 50 states and many counties, with all 67 Florida counties using these sensors. Florida, along with Illinois, saw voting infrastructure breached by Russian actors ahead of the 2016 presidential election, though there is no evidence that any votes were changed. 

Krebs acknowledged that even though CISA has not seen evidence of coordinated foreign interference efforts directed at elections yet, it could still happen before or after Election Day.

He cited concerns around debilitating ransomware attacks that have targeted state and local governments over the past year, and the disruption to the election system by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We do anticipate that if they were going to do something in the next couple of months, and I’m not just talking about up to and through to Nov. 3, but in that period after the election,” Krebs said, “[we are] absolutely ripe for a destructive or disruptive attack by a capable adversary, so we have to be ready.”

While CISA has not seen much activity, foreign adversaries have not been entirely absent from the elections process this year.

In February, former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said his aides had been briefed by U.S. intelligence community officials about Russian efforts to assist his campaign by spreading disinformation. Intelligence officials also told House lawmakers in February that Russia was again interfering to favor the Trump campaign, according to The New York Times.

Google’s Threat Analysis Group found evidence that Iranian hackers were targeting Trump campaign staff with malicious phishing emails, and that Chinese hackers were targeting the emails of staffers working for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a virtual event hosted by The Hill this week that while the U.S. was prepared to “contend” with foreign threats to elections, he was “confident that many countries will do their level best to have an impact on our election.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Joe Biden Mike Pompeo
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