As U.S. voters prepare to go to the polls for the November 6 midterm elections, federal, state and local officials are preparing, too. But whereas many voters are considering which candidates to support, government officials are working to safeguard the system against foreign interference.
Fears among many U.S. intelligence and security officials have been growing, dating back to before the 2016 U.S. presidential election when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security accused Russia of orchestrating a campaign to hack into the emails of U.S. political organizations and selectively release them to the public.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the joint statement said.
Following President Donald Trump’s election that November, the top three U.S. intelligence agencies issued a declassified report, accusing Russia of executing an unprecedented influence campaign “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
The January 2017 report from the CIA, the FBI and NSA also assessed that “[President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”
But the report said Russia’s efforts to use disinformation to sway voters was only one problem. Another was the access Russia got, and maintained, to U.S. state and local electoral systems — though officials concluded Russia was not able to access systems that would have allowed it to physically change vote totals.
More recent U.S. intelligent assessments indicate that in the run-up to this year’s midterm election, the threats have expanded.
In July, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats ominously declared the “warning lights are blinking red.”
Here are five things to know about the dangers to the electoral system and what the U.S. is doing about them:
Are the Russians interfering again in the U.S. election process?
Yes. “We continue to see a pervasive message campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Coats told reporters during a White House briefing in August.
Coats previously described Russia’s efforts as “undeniable,” accusing Moscow at the annual Aspen Security Conference in July of “trying to undermine our basic values, divide us with our allies.”
But just how much Russia is doing to undermine the upcoming elections remains a question.
“We’re not seeing the targeting of the actual state and local election systems that we saw in 2016 right now,” Jeanette Manfra, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for cybersecurity, said at the July security conference.
Since then, multiple intelligence and security officials have reiterated that the pace and scope of Russian activities do not match their 2016 efforts.
Microsoft has said hackers, using tactics similar to what Russia has used in the past, targeted the campaigns of at least three candidatesrunning for Congress.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, announced that suspected Russian hackers had targeted her campaign. Two Republican think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, also said they appear to have been targeted.
Are other countries following Russia’s lead and getting into the game this year?
Senior U.S. officials say they are “deeply concerned” about the growing use of influence operations, pointing to countries like China, Iran and North Korea as the biggest culprits after Russia.
Trump has been even more explicit, accusing Beijing of “attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration.”
China denies the charges. Still, a growing number of U.S. intelligence and security officials warn that Beijing has the capabilities to do as much, if not more, than Russia did in 2016.
There also is evidence Iran has been trying to expand its influence operations. In September, social media giants Facebook and Twitter announced they had removed hundreds of pages and accounts linked to an Iranian-based campaign that targeted the U.S. as well as other countries.
What are state election officials and political parties doing to protect against the hacking of election machinery?
All 50 U.S. states are working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to help harden their election infrastructures against attacks.
Every state, as well as almost 1,000 local jurisdictions, has enrolled in the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC), to make it easier to share information about threats.
The federal government has also made an additional $380 million in grants available to state officials to help improve election-related cybersecurity, purchase new voting equipment or improve voter registration systems. Organizations for state officials, like the National Conference of State Legislatures, have also helped pool resources and take advantage of best practices.Several states have also passed new laws to improve election cybersecurity.
But the relationship between the states and the federal government has been uneasy, with some state officials voicing concerns that the Department of Homeland Security was going too far in asserting authority over state and local elections. Still, Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen has expressed confidence about reducing the “trust deficit.”
“We have made tremendous strides,” Nielsen said, though she added states would benefit from consistent funding for ongoing security improvements.
What is the federal government doing to try to foil foreign meddling in the election process?
Officials have been working on several fronts to secure the upcoming vote from attacks.
In September, the White House unveiled a new National Cyber Strategy, promising a more aggressive approach in order to deter any sort of cyberattack or intrusion.
“We’re not just on defense,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said. “We’re going to do a lot of things offensively, and I think our adversaries need to know that.”
President Trump also signed an executive order promising to seek retribution, using sanctions and a range of other penalties, against any person, group or country assessed to have meddled in the election.
“We are engaged every single day,” U.S. Cyber Command’s Gen. Paul Nakasone said in September, though he refused to share any specifics.
The U.S. has also tried to hold Russia accountable for its efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, indicting 12 Russians affiliated with the country’s GRU intelligence agency for hacking into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic Party.
At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has been working with all 50 U.S. states to harden the country’s election infrastructure against possible attacks. Those efforts include information sharing and analysis, and deploying network intrusion sensors that can help detect attacks in real time.
DHS said 90 percent of Americans will be voting in areas covered by these sensors.
Will the 2018 midterm elections be secure?
U.S. officials say the election infrastructure is secure and that Americans should trust that their votes will count.
“We currently have no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure,” Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen said, though she cautioned U.S. adversaries are unlikely to give up altogether.
“We’re constantly on alert,” she said. “We know they have the capability and we know they have the will.”
But protecting and securing U.S. election systems is just part of the challenge. Intelligence officials warn stopping disinformation campaigns is far more difficult because countries like Russia, China and Iran are able to take advantage of social media and U.S. laws that protect freedom of expression.
Government officials have been working with social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, to remove accounts used by trolls and bots to spread propaganda and false information.
The companies also say they have been more active.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told lawmakers in September that the company is “blocking millions of attempts to register false accounts each and every day” and has been “making progress on fake news.”
Still, U.S. intelligence officials said they have no way of knowing when or if one bit of disinformation will cause an individual to change how he or she is going to vote.