Election securityElection Security 2020: Why Did Things Go Right This Time?

By Adam Segal, Connor Fairman, Lauren Dudley, and Maya Villasenor

Published 9 November 2020

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. government and technology companies took several steps to safeguard election security in cyberspace, focusing their efforts on disinformation and cyberattacks. Although there were a handful of incidents, none compromised the integrity of the election, and Election Day passed without any major disruption. Why did things go right this time? A combination of government and private sector action motivated by the lessons of the 2016 and 2018 elections. Still, as the vote count continues, disinformation remains a real threat.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. government and technology companies took several steps to safeguard election security in cyberspace, focusing their efforts on disinformation and cyberattacks. Although there were a handful of incidents, none compromised the integrity of the election, and Election Day passed without any major disruption. As one official from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) put it, Election Day was “just another Tuesday on the internet.” Why did things go right this time? A combination of government and private sector action motivated by the lessons of the 2016 and 2018 elections. Still, as the vote count continues, disinformation remains a real threat.

U.S. Government Efforts
Multiple agencies of the U.S. government played a role in securing the election, collaborating to detect threats and release warnings to the public.

In early October, the Department of Justice (DOJseized ninety-two domain names masquerading as news outlets that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been using to distribute propaganda in the United States, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Days later, following U.S. Cyber Command strikes against the Russian botnet Trickbot, a U.S. district court in Virginia issued an order allowing Microsoft to seize servers enlisted in the botnet due to concerns that Trickbot could threaten computers used to report on election results and maintain voter registration records.

Later in the month, the DOJ indicted six Russian military intelligence officers believed to be responsible for spreading the NotPetya malware and attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election campaign, and the 2018 Winter Olympics. Though Russia has long been widely believed to be behind these incidents, the timing and publicity of the indictment were clearly a warning to the Kremlin against interfering in the upcoming presidential election.

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