How simple claims of election interference can be enough to prompt real-world threats

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Officials remain on guard against foreign meddling in U.S. elections, as CISA and other agencies work to strengthen partnerships and intelligence sharing efforts with state and local election administrators.

The threat of foreign interference in U.S. elections remains a top concern, an election official from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said on Sept. 8, with nation-state actors potentially weaponizing misinformation to further stoke distrust in the voting process. 

Kim Wyman, senior election security advisor for CISA, said during a panel discussion on election security at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit that previous U.S. elections have included a combination of foreign influence campaigns and cyber attacks “from domestic and foreign actors trying to get into our systems.” But she said that these ongoing interference efforts could also be weaponized to amplify threats of physical violence against election officials and conspiracies about the accuracy of the electoral process. 

“These can be inflated claims of being able to breach a system or getting data,” Wyman said. “They can also be actual successful attempts. And it all sort of feeds into itself, because you have the narrative and the influence campaign, you have the actual cyber activity, and now I think what we’re starting to see is potentially physical security issues that come around that.”

Michael Daniel, president and CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, said that one of the ongoing challenges is that election interference “often has an element of surreptitiousness to it,” with both foreign and domestic actors using influence campaigns and claims of election interference to suit their own needs. 

“In other words, the actors are not always being honest about what their real agenda is or why they’re taking the actions they’re taking,” Daniel said. “It’s often coupled with mis- and disinformation as well. But I think at the root of it, it’s really about undermining confidence in the system or preventing the system from functioning as it’s intended.”

Daniel also expressed concern about the number of adversaries, including nation state actors, who are “trying to see whether or not election interference activities will further their interests.” 

“It’s not really just about the Russians,” Daniel added. “We can see the Chinese and Iranians and other foreign actors trying things out. But there are also homegrown actors in this space as well now, too.”

Given today’s political environment, where large portions of the electorate still doubt the results of the 2020 presidential election, even attempted election interference or inflated claims of intrusion into voting systems can still wreak havoc. Last month, Wyman told the Senate Judiciary Committee how threats of physical violence directed against election administrators and the spread of election-related misinformation made it more difficult for officials to do their jobs. 

Ed Smith, the director of global services and certification in North America for Smartmatic, said one major concern is that an adversary or nation state can fuel misinformation campaigns by claiming that they hacked an election system prior to early voting or Election Day, potentially depressing turnout and sowing doubts about the validity of election results. 

“Saying that they’ve disrupted the system somehow is really all they need to say,” Smith said. “Not that they even changed the results, but just somehow disrupted it. That can create a lack of confidence in the system.”

All of the panelists, however, said that election security efforts have come a long way since the 2016 presidential election, with CISA and other federal agencies strengthening partnerships with state and local election officials, offering intelligence briefings and expanding access to a variety of tools and resources to help deter cyber and physical threats to election infrastructure. 

“We are doing a much better job of working with the intelligence community and the law enforcement community to get actionable intelligence and information out to state and local election officials in a really timely manner so they can act on it and respond to it,” Wyman said, noting that all 50 states and approximately 3,400 local jurisdictions are a part of the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which offers officials a variety of cyber defense resources. 

Wyman said that CISA is currently focused on working with state and local election officials to beef up their physical and digital security efforts, including offering them the opportunity to work with a protective security advisor who can go out to polling places or election offices on request to provide officials with feedback on securing their facilities.

But even as threats to election administrators’ safety have become more frequent, officials still remain on guard against foreign influence efforts that could drive misleading narratives about vote tabulations or more directly interfere in the voting process. 

President Joe Biden on Sept. 7 extended the national emergency declaration from Executive Order 13848—which imposes sanctions on foreign actors who interfere in U.S. elections—for an additional year. The order, signed by former President Donald Trump in September 2018, requires the intelligence community to submit a report to the president within 45 days of the conclusion of a U.S. election, detailing foreign interference efforts targeting election infrastructure or political organizations, campaigns and candidates. The order also allows for the imposition of sanctions against foreign persons and entities identified by officials. The national emergency declaration was scheduled to expire on Sept. 12.

“The ability of persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States to interfere in or undermine public confidence in United States elections, including through the unauthorized accessing of election and campaign infrastructure or the covert distribution of propaganda and disinformation, continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” Biden said in the Sept. 7 notice. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.