Election securityU.S. Bracing for Attacks Before and After Election Day

By Jeff Seldin

Published 31 October 2020

U.S. intelligence officials have already confirmed attacks on the election have been underway for some time, with Russia, China and Iran all waging operations designed to influence the way voters cast their ballots. And more recently, intelligence officials warned that Russia and Iran managed to acquire voter registration data while hacking into U.S. databases. In another significant difference from the 2016 and 2018 elections, intelligence and election security officials warn that, this time, the assault on the election will not end when the polls close. Instead, they say the attacks will persist, likely until at least the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021.

For much of the past four years, United States cybersecurity officials responsible for preventing foreign meddling in elections have been preparing for an attack that, at least to the public’s knowledge, has never come. 

While U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia, China and Iran “conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns” during the 2018 elections, it said there was nothing like what happened in 2016 when Russia combined an aggressive influence operation with the work of hackers who managed to penetrate election-related systems in all 50 states.

None of the three countries did anything that changed any votes to affect the outcome of the election.

This election, which will reach its crescendo when voters go to the polls November 3, is different.

Unprecedented 2020 Election
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many states this year have expanded absentee and mail-in voting.

Data collected by the U.S. Elections Project finds that by October 29 more than 82 million voters had voted by mail or cast their ballots at early voting centers.

U.S. intelligence officials have already confirmed attacks on the election have been underway for some time, with Russia, China and Iran all waging operations designed to influence the way voters cast their ballots.

And more recently, intelligence officials warned that Russia and Iran managed to acquire voter registration data while hacking into U.S. databases.

In another significant difference from the 2016 and 2018 elections, intelligence and election security officials warn that, this time, the assault on the election will not end when the polls close. Instead, they say the attacks will persist, likely until at least the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2021.

Here are the threats that have U.S. officials most worried as Election Day approaches:

Foreign Influence Operations
U.S. counterintelligence officials began warning in August about influence campaigns by the big three – Russia, China and Iran.

In a rare public statement, National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) Director William Evanina warned that each of the three countries had a preference between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and had ongoing influence operations to help their favorite.

“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” Evanina said in the statement, adding, “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

“We assess that China prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection,” Evanina said.   

Iran, Evanina said, is “driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”

A month later, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned lawmakers that Russian efforts were “very, very active” on social media, on its own state-run media and through various proxies. 

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