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DHS points to Russia as key disinformation threat ahead of election

DHS points to Russia as key disinformation threat ahead of election
© Greg Nash

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Tuesday pointed to Russia as the key nation involved in spreading disinformation and misinformation in the U.S., along with posing an “acute” cybersecurity threat headed into the next year. 

“Foreign influence activity will target U.S. foreign and domestic policy, international events such as COVID-19, and democratic processes and institutions, including the 2020 Presidential election,” DHS wrote in the 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment (HTA), released Tuesday. 

“Russia is the likely primary covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation within the Homeland,” the agency noted. “We assess that Moscow’s primary objective is to increase its global standing and influence by weakening America—domestically and abroad—through efforts to sow discord, distract, shape public sentiment, and undermine trust in Western democratic institutions and processes.”

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The assessment from DHS came as concerns around foreign threats to elections have spiked in the past few months. A top official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessed in August that Russia, China and Iran were actively interfering in U.S. elections this year, four years after Russia launched a sweeping campaign designed to favor now-President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE

Democrats recently demanded that DHS make public more information around election threats following an ABC News report on a bulletin sent to law enforcement officials by DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis that warned Russian agents were likely to “amplify” concerns around mail-in voting to undermine public trust in the upcoming elections. 

Beyond disinformation concerns, DHS on Tuesday also highlighted cyber threats to elections and to the 2020 Census, with the agency noting that it expected nation states to attempt to interfere.

“Advanced persistent threat or other malicious cyber actors likely will target election-related infrastructure as the 2020 Presidential election approaches, focusing on voter PII [personally identifiable information], municipal or state networks, or state election officials directly. Operations could occur throughout the 2020 election cycle—through pre-election activities, Election Day, and the post-election period,” DHS wrote. 

The agency assessed that overall nation-state cyber threats, particularly those from Russia and China, were likely to remain “acute” over the next year. 

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“U.S. critical infrastructure faces advanced threats of disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks,” DHS wrote. “Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments, as well as the private sector, will experience an array of cyber-enabled threats designed to access sensitive information, steal money, and force ransom payments.”

The agency warned that Russia has the capability to “disrupt or damage U.S. critical infrastructure networks via cyber-attacks” and that Russian agents were almost certain to continue targeting U.S. industry and all levels of government.

“Russia probably can conduct cyber-attacks that would result in at least localized effects over hours to days and probably is developing capabilities that would cause more debilitating effects,” DHS wrote. 

The agency noted that China would continue its campaign of economic espionage against the U.S. and that China also poses a major ongoing threat to U.S. infrastructure due to potential cyberattacks. DHS assessed that China would likely target the manufacturing, defense, health care, transportation and energy sectors over the next year. 

Beyond Russia and China, DHS noted that Iran and North Korea also pose ongoing threats to the U.S. in cyberspace and highlighted cybercriminal threats the U.S. through the widespread use of ransomware attacks to lock down systems and demand payment. 

COVID-19 malicious cyber activity was another threat highlighted by the agency, with DHS warning that coronavirus-themed phishing emails were likely to increase and that nation-states would use cyberattacks to obtain information on COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, an effort both Russia and China have already engaged in. 

The overall report detailed a multitude of threats to the homeland beyond cybersecurity, including concerns around national disasters, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and transnational criminal organizations. 

Acting DHS Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfDoes the US owe amnesty to future illegal immigrants? Travel industry calls on Trump administration to prevent the need for quarantines by creating a testing plan Voting rights group files suit against Trump, administration officials alleging voter intimidation MORE said in a statement Tuesday that the report “is as close as the American people will get to seeing and understanding the information that I see as Acting Secretary and that our employees see in their national security missions.”

“As you read through the HTA you should have faith in knowing that these threats were identified using the best intelligence, operational information, and employee knowledge available to the Department,” Wolf said. “When the American people read this HTA they will be more aware of the traditional threats facing the Homeland like terrorism and organized crime. However, I think they will also realize that we face a significant threat in the Homeland from nation-states like China, Russia, and Iran.”