May 26, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: GOP launches its biggest attack yet on mail voting in California

By Joseph Marks

with Tonya Riley

Note to readers: The Cybersecurity 202 will only publish today, Wednesday and Thursday this week. We will return to our normal schedule next week.

Top Republican groups threw their weight behind President Trump’s assault on voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic with a lawsuit challenging California’s expansion of the practice.
But the groups, led by the Republican National Committee, are taking a far narrower approach than the president and steering clear of criticizing voting by mail as it will be practiced by basically every state besides California.
That narrow approach gives cover to Republican governors and secretaries of state who’ve been expanding mail voting even as the president criticizes it. Experts say increased mail voting is likely to be a vital part of conducting the general election safely and securely, including for groups, such as the elderly, who are more likely to vote for Republicans.
But the move may rankle Trump, who’s taken a hard line against broadly expanding mail voting — despite voting by mail himself in Florida this year. He's also claimed without evidence that mail-in ballots will produce widespread fraud.
Trump renewed that criticism over the Memorial Day weekend, charging on Twitter that Democrats “are trying to Rig the 2020 Election, plain and simple!” He claimed without evidence that expanded mail voting would result in forged ballots and people being forced to cast their vote for a particular candidate:
The Democrats are trying to Rig the 2020 Election, plain and simple!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2020
The RNC lawsuit focuses on an order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that counties must mail absentee ballots directly to voters.
California is the only state that has announced such a plan — even though mailing ballots directly has been championed by many Democrats and would be mandated in a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill House Democrats passed this month.
Numerous states led by both Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, have announced plans to send absentee ballot request forms to all voters in the primary or general elections and then send ballots just to people who request them.
“Governor Newsom’s executive order to send absentee ballots to inactive voters without necessary ballot safeguards is an illegal and brazen power grab ahead of November’s elections,” the RNC said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, which was also filed on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a news conference at the CalFire/Cameron Park Fire Station in Cameron Park, Calif.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool)
The suit may also be aimed at dissuading other states from following California’s lead. 
Nearly 30 states have already changed rules or procedures for running this year’s primary elections during the pandemic, affecting more than 85 million voters, Elise Viebeck reports. But only a handful of states have announced changes for the general election that’s less than six months away.
The changes have prompted more than two dozen legal battles, Elise reports. None of those is as wide-ranging or consequential as the California effort, but more could be on their way. Republicans have also put together a $20 million war chest to launch legal challenges related to elections across the country, Politico reports.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, speaks during the RNC winter meeting at the Trump National Doral resort in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/AP)
Top GOP officials parroted Trump’s criticism of mail voting even as they steered clear of his blanket condemnations. 
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel called Newsom’s plan an “illegal election power grab” on Twitter and argued it “would create more opportunities for fraud & destroy the confidence Californians deserve to have in their elections.”
I am pleased to announce that the RNC, @NRCC & @CAGOP just sued Gavin Newsom over his illegal election power grab.
His radical plan is a recipe for disaster that would create more opportunities for fraud & destroy the confidence Californians deserve to have in their elections.
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) May 24, 2020
She also accused Democrats of “trying to use this pandemic to redesign our entire election system for political gain” — even though the lawsuit’s specific concern doesn’t apply outside California.
The lawsuit even cites the practices of the five states that vote almost entirely by mail as evidence for what California is doing wrong. Those states mail ballots directly to voters but have also spent years ensuring their voter rolls are accurate so ballots aren’t sent to voters who have moved or died. Those states span the political spectrum from Washington state and Oregon, which routinely vote for Democrats in presidential elections, to Utah, which typically goes Republican.
No state that regularly conducts statewide all-mail elections automatically mails ballots to inactive voters because it invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting,” the lawsuits states. “Fraudulent and invalid votes dilute the votes of honest citizens and deprive them of their right to vote in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Alex Padilla, California’s Democratic secretary of state, shot back, calling the lawsuit “part of Trump’s political smear campaign against voting by mail” and accusing Republicans of exploiting the virus “for voter suppression.”
This lawsuit is just another part of Trump’s political smear campaign against voting by mail. We will not let this virus be exploited for voter suppression. (2/2)
— Alex Padilla (@AlexPadilla4CA) May 25, 2020
Some Republicans have struggled to square Trump’s position with mail voting in their own states. 
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) struggled to praise his own state’s mail-voting system while not contradicting the president – and mischaracterized Democrats’ voting-by-mail proposals in the process. About 30 percent of Florida voters cast ballots by mail in 2018.
“The way we do it in Florida … we have figured out how to do it in a safe manner,” Scott said. “Now, I think what a lot of the Democrats want to do is do only mail-in ballots. And I don't think that's right.”
In fact, congressional Democrats’ proposals to expand voting by mail all require that in-person voting remains an option. In most cases they would also expand early in-person voting days.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) pushed back more directly against Trump. “In my state, I'll bet 90 percent of us vote by mail. It works very very well and it's a very Republican state,” he told reporters, according to ABC News.

Mailing ballots directly to voters without requests from them is genuinely controversial, however, even for some Democrats. 
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin (D), for example, is opposing a push by Democratic legislators to mail absentee ballots to all voters in favor of setting up a ballot request system.
Galvin isn’t worried specifically about fraud, but is concerned that sending out so many ballots that aren’t returned could lead to confusion and sow doubts about the election’s results, he told me.
Democratic election officials in other states are also planning on sending requests rather than ballots, including in Michigan, which has been a particular focus of Trump’s ire. The president incorrectly claimed on Twitter last week that Michigan planned to send absentee ballots. He deleted that wording and tweeted a corrected version hours later.
Top Democrats have defended the practice of mailing ballots directly to voters. They argue it’s unfair to make voters go through too many steps before casting ballots by mail and that extra steps could discourage them from voting or make it impossible.
“I believe that where we should be right now is every voter should receive a ballot by mail. We should put enough money into the system to make that work for every state,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said recently. “We've got six months to be able to get this right, so let's start now.”

The keys

DHS has ramped up defenses for health care and medical research in light of foreign hacking attempts. 

A lab technician extracts a portion of a coronavirus vaccine candidate during testing. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

The agency is scanning and securing Internet-connected devices used by pharmaceutical companies and research institutions, CyberScoop's Sean Lyngaas reports.
It’s also ramping up digital protections for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Bryan Ware, a top Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity officialThe move comes after DHS and the FBI warned about ongoing efforts by Chinese-backed hackers to steal research related to a coronavirus vaccine.
It’s part of a broader pivot to focus the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency on keeping the nation safe during the pandemic, Ware said. 
“There’s nowhere that said that pandemic response was within our job, but we realized very quickly that our adversaries … whether they’re state actors or criminal actors, that they could present great risks,” he said.
New U.S. sanctions against Huawei could threaten the company's role in Britain's 5G networks.

The Union Flag flies over 10 Downing Street in London on Sunday. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)
The United Kingdom's top cybersecurity agency is launching a new review of Huawei’s role in light of the U.S. move that restricts global computer chip suppliers with U.S. ties from selling to the Chinese telecom giant, Mary-Ann Russon at BBC News reports.
Huawei currently has clearance to build up to 35 percent of the less sensitive parts of the nation's 5G network. But the new U.S. ban could put the company at a competitive disadvantage.
The U.K. government has resisted multiple entreaties from U.S. officials to ban Huawei over concerns it could aid Chinese government spying. Huawei has said it would refuse any government spying request.
A senior U.N. official warned of the ‘urgent’ danger of cyberattacks during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A health worker takes samples from a man to test him for the coronavirus. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

The pandemic has forced people across the globe to rely more heavily on the Internet, but most nations don’t have sufficient cybersecurity protections, U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu warned members of the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the Associated Press reports.
She described “worrying reports of [cyber] attacks against health care organizations and medical research facilities worldwide.”
The attacks could have deadly results, acting U.S. deputy ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet told council members. U.S. medical and research organizations working on the nation's response to coronavirus have seen a surge in cyberattacks, she told the council.
The FBI and DHS issued a warning this month blaming Chinese government-backed hackers for some cyberattacks intended to steal information from research labs working on coronavirus vaccines.
Members of the House and Senate have requested a briefing on the Chinese threat to U.S. medical research by June 22.

Government scan

Mozilla, Reddit and Twitter joined a letter urging House lawmakers to ban the warrantless collection of Internet search and browsing history.

A Twitter logo. (Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images)

The Internet companies want lawmakers to pass an amendment to the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act to prohibit such collection before voting to reauthorize government spying powers. A similar measure was introduced in the Senate but fell short by one vote.
More government news:

“I did my duty, and you’re damn fortunate I did,” the former attorney general declared.
Devlin Barrett

Cash-short state and local governments are pleading with Congress to send them funds to shore up their cybersecurity as hackers look to exploit the crisis by targeting overwhelmed government offices. 
The Hill

Global cyberspace

Officials in the Chinese tech hub Hangzhou may make coronavirus tracking technology permanent. 

A security guard wears thermal glasses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (Xihao Jiang/Reuters)
The proposed permanent version of the tool would assign individuals a color-coded health badge based on “a collation of their medical records, physical examination results, and lifestyle habits, such as smoking and alcohol consumption,” the Wall Street Journal's Liza Lin reports.

The announcement sparked a backlash on Chinese social media, where residents accused the city of using the pandemic as an excuse to expand government monitoring of citizens.
It also came days after Robin Li, chief executive of Chinese tech giant Baidu and a member of a Chinese political advisory body, introduced a new nonbinding proposal urging legislators to wind down collection of personal information in the coronavirus response.
More international news:

The Red Cross called for an end to cyberattacks on healthcare and medical research facilities during the coronavirus pandemic, in a letter published Tuesday and signed by a group of political and business figures.

Indonesia's election commission is investigating the release of 2.3 million voters' private information on a hacker website along with a threat to release of the data of about 200 million people, the agency said on Friday.
Remote electronic voting on constitutional changes that could greatly extend Russian President Vladimir Putin's rule will be used in three or four regions but not rolled out nationwide, the Central Election Commission chief said in an interview.

Industry report

Amazon, Microsoft and Google are providing web services to Chinese surveillance firms blacklisted by the United States for human rights abuses, researchers say.

A Chinese flag hangs near a Hikvision security camera outside of a shop in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
The services include email, website hosting and login authentication, according to researchers at privacy website Top10VPN, CNBC reports.
The report alleges that Amazon and Google are providing web services for Dahua Technology and Hikvision, two video surveillance companies blacklisted for aiding in the abuses of Uighurs, China's Muslim minority population. Artificial intelligence start-ups SenseTime and Megvii were also blacklisted for human rights abuses but appear to still be using Microsoft technology.
All four Chinese companies have disputed allegations of their involvement in human rights abuses. None of the U.S. companies mentioned in the report immediately responded to CNBC for comment.
More industry news:

The unprotected database contained DNS queries on millions of Thail internet users.


  • Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, will host a virtual event and make an announcement related to countering election interference, along with Microsoft and the Alliance for Securing Democracy, at 10 a.m. Register here.
  • Ranking Digital Rights will host an event, “Getting to the Source of the 2020 Infodemic: It’s the Business Model,” on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

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