Sep 24, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Democrats are trying to boost confidence in election security while Trump sows more doubt

Joseph Marks

It explicitly bans candidates from accepting from foreign sources anything that might influence an election, such as “opposition research, polling, or other non-public information.” That’s a jab at Trump, who’s speculated openly that he might accept dirt about a political opponent from a foreign government. 

The bill also mandates that campaigns notify the FBI and the Federal Election Commission about foreign contacts and threatens up to five years in prison and $1 million in fines for violations. The architects of the bill, which also includes measures to strengthen Congress’s ability to check executive power abuses, are informally calling it the “post-Trump reforms,” Karoun Demirjian reports.

Trump, meanwhile, refused during a news conference to commit to ensure a peaceful transition of power after November's election, replying, “We’re going to have to see what happens.”

He went on to condemn “ballots” — a seeming reference to mail-in ballots, which he’s routinely attacked without evidence — and to suggest that if states back off using mail ballots it will ensure both a peaceful transition of power and his reelection.

“Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very — we’ll have a very peaceful, there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation,” Trump said. “The ballots are out of control. You know it. And you know who knows it better than anybody else? The Democrats know it better than anybody else.”

The comments underscored the stark contrast between Democrats’ efforts to raise public confidence in elections and Trump’s efforts to undermine that confidence with less than six weeks to go before Election Day. 

They marked an escalation — even by the standards of Trump’s caustic rhetoric. 

The remarks could help prompt unrest if there are disputes about the election outcome or even if it takes longer than usual to tally preliminary results, which is highly likely because of the dramatic increase in mail voting during the pandemic.

The comments come as a handful of states have already sent out mail ballots and numerous others are preparing to do so in the next week

Election officials from both parties have generally declined to follow Trump’s lead in attacking mail ballots. That’s been the case even when the president has rejiggered his criticism to focus narrowly on states opting to send such ballots directly to all the state’s registered voters during the pandemic, such as California, Nevada and New Jersey. 

The Trump campaign lost a legal battle to halt Nevada's plan and backed off a similar lawsuit in California. A New Jersey legal fight is ongoing. 

Benjamin Hovland, chair of the Election Assistance Commission, disputed there’s any tangible difference between mail ballots that voters request and ones that are sent automatically during a panel discussion I moderated yesterday sponsored by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center and the Information Technology Industry Council. 

“It’s tomato, tomahto,” he said, noting that both mail-voting systems include extensive procedures to verify ballots were sent by the correct voter. Hovland's agency helps states improve election security and administration and delivers federal election money to states. 

Election experts were quick to slam Trump’s comments. 

Georgetown University professor and voting machine security expert Matt Blaze:

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research:

Here’s the think tank Freedom House, which advocates democratic reforms across the globe: 

Democratic lawmakers hit back too. Here’s Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.):

Democrats, by contrast, have made election integrity a key priority since taking the House in 2018. 

Their first major piece of legislation included more than $1 billion for election security along with mandates that states include paper records for ballots. After the pandemic struck, House and Senate Democrats pushed for about $4 billion to help states ramp up mail voting and make other reforms so people could vote safely in person during the pandemic.

They’ve also introduced a slew of smaller reforms that are unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate but signal their prioritization of election security. This week, for example, the House passed a bill clarifying that hacking voting systems is a federal crime.

Also this week, Oregon’s two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced a measure delivering $500 million to help states and counties reduce long polling lines. The bill would also require states to file public plans for reducing wait times at all polling places to 30 minutes or less. The irony: Oregon is one of five states that has historically voted nearly entirely by mail. 

The keys

Trump’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary denies whistleblower claims he held back intelligence about Russian election interference.   

Chad Wolf, who’s acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, called those claims from DHS’s former intelligence chief patently false" during his confirmation hearing, the Associated Press's Ben Fox reports

In a whistleblower complaint earlier this month, former DHS intelligence chief Brian Murphy claimed that Wolf told him to stop providing reports on Russian intelligence because it made Trump look bad. Murphy also said Wolf asked him to withhold a bulletin about a Russian disinformation campaign against Joe Biden. The DHS inspector general is still investigating the claims.

Wolf told the committee the bulletin was held to add additional context but that the underlying intelligence didn't change. Murphy's lawyer Mark Zaid disputed that. 

“We outright challenge Mr. Wolf’s testimony and we look forward to the opportunity to provide classified testimony to Congressional and OIG oversight authorities to describe details to the contrary,” he said.

TikTok is asking a federal court to halt Trump's ban. 

The legal maneuver suggests that TikTok and the Trump administration may not reach a deal this week to address national security concerns with the app, Rachel Lerman reports

TikTok is racing to finalize a deal before the ban is set to go into effect Sunday. Trump has said he won't make a deal if TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, is still involved with the company, but it seems unlikely Bytedance would accept such a deal. The company is seeking approval for the deal from the Chines government. 

The White House has expressed concerns that TikTok's Chinese ownership would allow the Chinese government to compel it to hand over U.S. user data. TikTok says it has never been asked for such data and would decline to provide it if asked. In the company's filing yesterday, its global chief security officer added that it has safeguards in place against any large unauthorized downloads.

The Justice Department countered that the emergency delay is unnecessary because the ban will only affect new downloads of the app and updates, not people who already use the app.

A coalition of users of WeChat, another Chinese-owned app, recently won a court injunction to temporarily halt a similar ban.

Former eBay workers pleaded guilty to a cyberstalking campaign that included sending victims a bloody pig mask.

The four eBay security and global intelligence team members targeted the victims with Twitter and email threats and mailed live cockroaches in addition to sending the pig mask, Reuters's Nate Raymond reports. They were among seven total defendants charged in the case, including two former eBay security executives.

The campaign targeted two bloggers who had been critical of eBay. One of the executives identified in the case, former chief executive Devin Wenig, denied any involvement and has not been charged.

Defending the ballot

A company that sells election data sharing tools to U.S. states and counties says its internal systems were hacked.

The company, Tyler Technologies, said it didn’t believe its clients’ software was breached, Joseph Menn at Reuters reports

The report comes amid widespread concerns about potential hacks from Russia and other U.S. adversaries aimed at upending or undermining confidence in November’s election. Intelligence and DHS officials have said they’ve seen no significant efforts by such adversaries to compromise election equipment this election cycle, though they’ve spotted numerous social media disinformation campaigns. 

Election officials use Tyler’s tools to display voting results among other tasks, Joseph reports. The company didn’t release details about the hack or say if hackers had demanded a ransom. 

Government scan

U.S. Customs and Border Protection failed to safeguard sensitive data that was ultimately exposed by a contractor, a watchdog report says.

Hill happenings

Democrats are calling for Trump administration officials to declassify information about election threats. 

The outcry comes after the Senate Armed Services Committee received two briefings from top officials, the Hill's Maggie Miller reports. “I am very deeply concerned, I think the American people need to know what we heard,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters. He said that the threat Congress was briefed on was really potentially shocking.

Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, who were briefed by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe yesterday, also called for more transparency. 

“I think that clearly the American people as of now are not going to get what they need,” committee member Ron Wyden told the Hill. “I am not confident that the American people will get what they need to know in terms of information about the major issues in front of us, and taking steps to change it.”

Cyber insecurity

Instagram fixed a bug that allowed hackers to take over accounts with just a photo.

The vulnerability would have given hackers access to a user's phone contacts, location data, phone camera and files stored on the device, researchers at Check Point found

Instagram issued a patch for the vulnerability after Check Point researchers flagged it.

More cybersecurity news:


  • The Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on threats to the homeland with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray as a witness today at 10 a.m.
  • New Americas Open Technology Institute will hold a virtual panel exploring how Internet platforms are addressing the spread of election-related misinformation on Oct. 1 at 1:30 p.m.

Secure log off

Fall is here folks. 

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