NSA Tackles 2020 Election Security

October 7, 2020

While Americans may be concerned about election interference coming from Russia, national security experts say Russia is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cybersecurity professional at work

Dave Imbordino, election security lead for the National Security Agency (NSA), recently spoke on the subject at a panel discussion during the 2020 DEF CON conference.

“We’re looking at the spectrum of all of our adversaries, Russia, China, Iran, and ransomware actors,” said Imbordino. “There are more people in the game. They’re learning from each other.”

With the 2020 presidential election in sight, NSA is working hard to identify and eliminate these complex and pernicious threats to the foundation of our democracy. But what, exactly, are they looking for?

According to Imbordino, a primary threat is influence operations, i.e., creating fake information online to stir dissension and sway opinions.

“Influence is a cheap game to get into now with social media,” he said. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money. You can try to launder your narratives online through different media outlets. That’s something we’re laser-focused on as well.”

China has already deployed influence operations in its own backyard, specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“[China] becoming potentially more aggressive in the U.S. space is something that we need to monitor and be prepared for,” Imbordino said. “For the Chinese cyber threat ... they’re a little bit different in terms of the scale and breadth of the targets they go after.” China’s broad compromises of private information and the scale of their operations sets them apart.

Iran is also attempting online influence campaigns targeting the U.S. audience.

They needn’t look further than what Russia did in 2016 … and what they plan for 2020. Imbordino said the Russian-operated Internet Research Agency, for instance, has set up influence operations overseas to reduce the possibility of being detected.

“They have set up something in Africa, Ghana, in terms of ... having people there trying to put stuff online, posting things about socially divisive issues, using covert influence websites to be able to get their narrative out,” he said. “That’s kind of a shift in tactic that we’ve seen from the Russia side.”

When asked if one adversary is more dangerous than another, Imbordino made it clear that we must take election threats from each of these adversaries seriously.

However, he did emphasize that the ransomware threat is a wildcard. The attack might not target U.S. election infrastructure but could still impact our elections. For example, an attack could delay results, vote tallying, or potentially prevent voters from voting altogether, thus sowing confusion and chaos in the electorate.

“You can have a ransomware incident that doesn’t even have a measurable impact on an election’s accounting,” he said. “But once it’s reported and public knowledge, someone can then spin that into an influence campaign to make people think that it did … and cause the results to be in doubt.”

Despite the dire warnings, Imbordino said that he and his interagency partners are more than ready to face these threats and stressed they’re more prepared than ever.

“We’ve seen [our] adversaries evolve; we’ve seen new adversaries come in. You always worry about what you don’t know,” Imbordino said. “But I’m confident that we are in a lot better position [than 2016] for agility and responding to these threats because of the systems we have set up.”

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