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Security agencies warn election officials to brace for attacks on US presidential race

Written by on April 18, 2024

U.S. intelligence and security agencies are trying to prepare election officials for a wave of new attacks aiming to destroy voter confidence in November’s presidential election, just as a series of reports warn some familiar adversaries are starting to ramp up their efforts.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the FBI, issued a new warning on Wednesday that “the usual suspects” — Russia, China and Iran — are looking for ways to stoke tensions and divide American voters.

All three countries, the guidance said, are “leveraging influence operations exploiting perceived sociopolitical divisions to undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

The new guidance warned that the three countries are using fake online accounts and various proxies, including state-sponsored media organizations, to spread disinformation and sow doubt.

It also cautioned that Russia, China and Iran are using real people, including social media influencers, “to wittingly or unwittingly promote their narratives.”

“The elections process is the golden thread of American democracy, which is why our foreign adversaries deliberately target our elections infrastructure with their influence operations,” CISA senior adviser Cait Conley said in a statement to reporters. “CISA is committed to doing its part to ensure these [state and local] officials — and the American public — don’t have to fight this battle alone.”

Agency warns of new tactics

The latest guidance, posted on CISA’s website, warns that in addition to resorting to familiar tactics, Russia, China and Iran are likely to employ new tricks to try to confuse U.S. voters and erode confidence in the election process.

One such technique is voice cloning — using a fake recording of a public official or figure to try to cause confusion. The agencies cited an example from last year’s election in the Slovak Republic, when a fake recording of a key party leader purported to show him discussing how to rig the vote.

The guidance also warned that Iran could try to employ “hack and leak” cyberattacks in the U.S., using lessons learned from similar operations against Israel in recent months.

And it said Russia and China have separately sought to spark alarm among voters by spreading fake documents alleging to show evidence of security incidents impacting physical buildings or computer systems.

China denied the allegations.

“China has always adhered to noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an email to VOA.

“Speculating or accusing China of using social media to interfere in the U.S. politics is completely groundless and malicious,” Liu added.

VOA also contacted representatives for the Russian and Iranian governments, who have yet to respond.

For now, CISA, ODNI and the FBI are advising U.S. election officials that they can try to mitigate the impact of election meddling attempts by creating trusted portals for information, such as official U.S. government websites, and by proactively debunking false information.

But the challenge is likely to grow.

Russia already interfering, says Microsoft

Tech giant Microsoft warned on Wednesday it is seeing signs that Russia, at least, is already ramping up its election interference efforts.

“The usual Russian election influence actors kicked into gear over the last 45 days,” according to a report by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center.

The Russian effort so far, the report said, “employs a mix of themes from 2020 with a renewed focus on undermining U.S. support for Ukraine.”

Microsoft further warned that Russia, China and Iran have “leveraged some form of generative AI [artificial intelligence] to create content since last summer.”

“We anticipate that election influence campaigns will include fakes — some will be deep, most shallow — and the simplest manipulations, not the most complex employment of AI, will likely be the pieces of content that have the most impact,” the report added.

At the same time, there is concern about domestic extremists impacting the presidential election.

“There is a serious risk of extremist violence,” the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a report issued Wednesday.

“While the risk of far-right election-related violence is greater, the possibility of far-left extremist violence cannot be dismissed,” it said, pointing to the possibility of attacks on pre-election political events or gatherings, on polling places during Election Day, and against election offices in the days following the election.

Such warnings are consistent with those issued by U.S. officials in recent months.

“Some DVEs [domestic violent extremists], particularly those motivated by conspiracy theories and anti-government or partisan grievances, may seek to disrupt electoral processes,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned in a threat assessment issued this past September.

“Violence or threats could be directed at government officials, voters, and elections‑related personnel and infrastructure, including polling places, ballot drop box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, political party offices and vote-counting sites,” it said.


By Jeff Seldin

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