Top election officials warn election systems being 'scanned' for vulnerabilities by adversaries

Top election officials warn election systems being 'scanned' for vulnerabilities by adversaries
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Top federal officials within multiple agencies on Wednesday warned of ongoing efforts by foreign adversaries to sway elections including through scanning for vulnerabilities in election infrastructure.

The officials, however, also emphasized the strong measures that will be put in place to thwart these efforts. 

“What we know is that targeting of election infrastructure is in the playbook ... it’s an option now,” a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday. “We continue to receive reports of scanning of election infrastructure as a whole.”

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The official emphasized that this scanning had been “mostly unsuccessful” and was “largely scanning or probing, looking for vulnerabilities that may exist in the IT infrastructure, in this case election infrastructure.”

The senior CISA official noted that federal agencies had been working with election officials to help them manage and respond to this type of activity, including through training on how to spot and prevent attempted email phishing or ransomware attacks that could negatively impact election infrastructure on Election Day. 

They noted that coordination between state and local election officials and the federal government had ramped up, and said CISA planned to set up both a classified and unclassified operations center in advance of Election Day to help coordinate and address any election threats spotted by officials. 

“We didn’t have near the visibility or awareness in 2016 that we have now,” the official said. “We are way ahead of where we were.”

Despite these strides forward, the CISA official emphasized that “uncertainty” to the election process due to the COVID-19 pandemic created “fertile ground for our adversaries to divide us,” strongly recommending that voters be vigilant in consuming election information and to be prepared for election results to be finalized later than usual. 

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“The process is not going to look like what we are used to,” the senior CISA official said. “Election night results are not the final results, and there is a whole certification process to ensure the accuracy of votes.”

Focus on election security at the federal level has increased since the 2016 presidential election, when Russian agents launched a sweeping and sophisticated attack aimed at interfering in the election in favor of now-President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE

The effort included targeting election infrastructure in all 50 states, with hackers successfully gaining access to systems in Illinois and Florida, although there is no evidence that any votes were changed. Disinformation was also spread across social media platforms, and the networks of the Democratic National Committee were hacked. 

More recently, William Evanina, the director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, put out an assessment warning that Russia was again attempting to interfere in U.S. elections to favor Trump, while China and Iran were interfering in favor of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Biden says Ginsburg successor should be picked by candidate who wins on Nov. 3 MORE

A senior Office of the Director of National Intelligence official referenced the assessment on Wednesday, telling reporters that those three countries are the “threat actors we are most concerned with, there will be more in the future that want to toy with us, but those are the big three.”

A senior FBI official added that Russia’s efforts were aimed at dividing Americans, while China’s efforts were aimed at managing “what it hopes to be our decline on the world stage.”

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen discussed concerns around election interference during a separate event Monday, noting that while it would be “extraordinarily difficult” for foreign adversaries to change vote tallies, influence campaigns could pose a threat to elections. 

“We do continue to see malign foreign influence efforts relevant to the 2020 presidential election,” Rosen said during a virtual event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some foreign actors are covertly trying to undermine confidence in our elections because they are authoritarian governments opposed to representative democracy.”

Rosen emphasized that despite these influence efforts, voters were not helpless. 

“While we must remain vigilant, Americans should not be deterred from participating in elections by concerns of malign foreign influence efforts,” Rosen said. “All Americans, in the end, can control who they vote for.”