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Sep 16, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: State officials worry election misinformation is coming from inside the government

Elise Viebeck


But in the past few days, election officials in some states have raised the alarm about false guidance for voters they say is coming from within the government bureaucracy — specifically, from the U.S. Postal Service. And at least one federal judge has agreed.

The latest conflict is a Postal Service mailer recently sent to households around the country with generic advice for voting by mail. 

The suggestions included requesting mail ballots “at least 15 days before Election Day,” adding postage to return envelopes “if needed” and mailing voted ballots at least a week before the deadline. 

But this information is not accurate in at least nine states and the District of Columbia, where officials either already conduct their elections fully by mail — or are proactively sending out ballots this year as a public health measure. It’s prompting an outcry that the latest agency communications are confusing and may end up disenfranchising voters who will follow the wrong rules as a result.  

“Confusing voters about mail ballots in the middle of a pandemic is unacceptable,” tweeted Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat who sued on Friday night to block further delivery of the mailer to state residents. “It can undermine confidence in the election & suppress votes. I will do everything in my power to stop @USPS from sending misinformation to voters.”

The flap underscores just how complex the voting landscape is this year as officials prepare for a surge in mail voting.

While Colorado has been holding statewide mail elections since 2013, California, New Jersey, Vermont, Nevada and the District of Columbia will proactively send ballots to voters for the first time in November. Another 10 states decided to send request forms for mail ballots. And around the country, states from New York to Alabama are allowing voters who fear contracting or spreading the coronavirus to vote by mail.

The Post recently published an interactive guide on how to vote in every state, both by mail and in person. The project — which involved collecting more than 2,000 data points — underscores the diversity of states’ voting policies, from whether they offer same-day voter registration, to whether they allow the use of ballot drop boxes, to whether they allow mail ballots to be counted before Election Day.  

We are regularly updating the tool to reflect changes to deadlines, rules for obtaining and returning your mail ballot and ballot verification practices like signature-matching. These updates will continue through Nov. 3, as litigation over voting rules continues around the country. 

To navigate the tool, please visit this page

Election officials are facing serious challenges as they inform the public about fast-changing rules this year.  

While polls point to an increased appetite for mail voting this year, only just over 3 in 10 registered voters say they are “very confident” that their vote will be counted accurately if they cast a mail ballot, compared with nearly 7 in 10 who say the same about voting in person on Election Day, according to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted by Ipsos. 

President Trump has also repeatedly and without evidence attacked mail voting as vulnerable to massive fraud, heightening the challenge for election officials as they try to build confidence in voting systems that will rely more than ever on the mail this year. 

The USPS episode is still unfolding. 

As other universal vote-by-mail states such as Washington and Utah rushed to correct the record for their voters, Colorado won two quick victories in court after it filed suit against the Postal Service on Saturday. 

Judge William J. Martinez granted the state’s request for a temporary restraining order to block further delivery of the Postal Service mailers. Then he denied the Postal Service’s request to reconsider that decision. In his order, Martinez argued that the mailer “provides false or misleading information about the manner of Colorado’s elections” and “likely interferes with Colorado citizens’ fundamental right to vote.”

According to the Postal Service, the mailer was designed to help voters cast mail ballots successfully while avoiding undue strain on the mail service. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, over 190 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail this fall, many in states where mail voting is uncommon and voters aren’t aware of best practices. 

In a court filing, USPS argued that Colorados claims werent valid, even if the mailer did serve to confuse voters.

A spokeswoman for the Postal Service told The Post that the court “acted prematurely.” On the other side, Griswold — a sharp critic of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — has called the situation with the mailer “beyond suspect” in light of the slowdown in mail service and what she described as the Postal Service’s “refusal to listen to election experts.” On Tuesday, she said she would petition Martinez to force the Postal Service to pay for a mailer with “correct election information.” 

The keys

The White House is nearing a decision on TikTok.

The administration will make a decision soon, Trump told reporters yesterday.

“I have high respect for [Oracle founder] Larry Ellison. He’s somebody I know. He’s been really a terrific guy for a long time,” Trump said. “So we’re going to take a look. I heard they’re very close to a deal.”

Oracles close White House ties may smooth over any resistance to the deal, Jay Greene and Ellen Nakashima report. Ellison is a prominent Trump donor and Oracle chief executive Safra Catz served on Trump’s transition team. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser who advocated to ban TikTok rather than sell it to a U.S. company, could be swayed to back off because of his close relationship with Catz.

“This deal on its face does not smell right and ordinarily Peter would be out there bashing it,” a former official told The Post. “But he can’t. He’s way too close to Oracle.” (Oracle’s chief Washington lobbyist, Ken Glueck, said Catz and Navarro have not discussed the TikTok deal.)

The deal is already drawing backlash from members of Congress.

“I’m waiting to see all the details, but it’s hard to imagine this is anything but a payoff from China to one of Donald Trump’s major campaign fundraisers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in a statement. “Making Oracle a middleman won’t protect Americans against Chinese government influence, and to make matters worse, Oracle has an awful record of harvesting and selling Americans’ private data to anyone with a credit card.” 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also criticized the companies for not providing a transparent look at how they’ll address security concerns with TikTok.

Facebook and Twitter shut down accounts linked to pro-Trump group Turning Point USA for inauthentic behavior.

The networks, powered by an army of paid teens, pushed out content that sowed distrust about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and cast doubt on mail balloting, painting it as a tool for Democrats to steal the election, Isaac Stanley-Becker reports

The Republican teens hired to work for the online campaign lifted the language from a shared online document, Isaac reports. They posted the same lines a limited number of times to avoid automated detection by the technology companies, sources familiar with the process said.

The effort generated thousands of posts this summer on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, making it one of the most ambitious domestic influence campaigns reported this election cycle. Twitter suspended at least 20 accounts involved in the activity for “platform manipulation and spam” in response to The Post’s findings. Facebook also removed a number of accounts as part of what the company said is an ongoing investigation. 

Experts say the campaign is evading the guardrails put in place by Twitter and Facebook to prevent a repeat of the sort of disinformation campaigns used by Russia in 2016.  The campaign illustrates that “the scale and scope of domestic disinformation is far greater than anything a foreign adversary could do to us,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Turning Point USA, which is led by 26-year-old conservative commentator Charlie Kirk, denied its operations did anything wrong. “This is sincere political activism conducted by real people who passionately hold the beliefs they describe online, not an anonymous troll farm in Russia,” the field director, Austin Smith, said in the statement. 

U.S. prosecutors indicted two hackers for retaliation against the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general.

The indictment could be the first of several that U.S. prosecutors will announce this week related to Iranian hacking, Sean Lyngaas of CyberScoop reports.

“Iran remains a great concern to us and we’re going to continue to keep pressure on them,” a Justice Department official told CyberScoop.

The indictment accused Behzad Mohammadzadeh, an Iranian thought to be 19, and Marwan Abusrour, a 25-year-old Palestinian, of defacing U.S. websites with messages such as “Down with America.” The attacks were far from the retaliation the FBI warned against following the killing of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleiman by the United States.

The Iranian government has repeatedly denied conducting such cyberattacks.

Securing the ballot

Kentucky officials are warning residents about two election scams. 

One scam involved text messages from a Kentucky area code telling voters they weren’t registered and directing them to a fake registration website called ky.reg.com, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports. Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) and Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) warned voters the site could be trying to steal their personal and financial information.  

The two officials also criticized the nonprofit group Center for Voter Information for sending mailers encouraging registered voters to register again. The mailers “mislead voters, who then drive unnecessary call volume to our overworked election officials around the state,” said Adams.

The Center for Voter Information denied the claims, saying that it was the two Republicans who were seeking to disenfranchise voters by discouraging them to register. The group said its mailers tell people to disregard the information if they are already registered. 

More election news:

Chatroom

Motherboard spoke with some real-life hackers for the 25th anniversary of the iconic cybersecurity comedy “Hackers.”

Here's what other members of the cybersecurity community had to say.

Some thought it was overrated: 

But others disagreed:

It did have some killer 'fits.

Despite the comedic nature of the film, its message lives on:

Daybook

  • The Committee for a Responsible Budget will host a conversation with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) to discuss the state of cyber-readiness today at 1 p.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine threats to U.S. intellectual property, focusing on cyberattacks and counterfeits during the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

Secure log off

Heather Kelly has you covered on what Apple released yesterday and what was missing.

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