Sep 30, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Trump made a slew of false claims about mail voting during the first debate

Joseph Marks

with Tonya Riley

President Trump closed the first 2020 presidential debate with a barrage of false claims about mail voting that are sure to give heartburn to officials trying to run an orderly election amid extremely difficult circumstances.

He claimed without evidence that mail voting will produce “fraud like you’ve never seen” and that 30 or 40 percent of mail ballots are traditionally lost in elections. Those claims have all been rebutted by election officials and leaders at Trump’s own FBI and Department of Homeland Security who say mail voting fraud is exceptionally rare and extremely difficult to pull off. 

He also refused to say he’d accept the results of the election or that he won’t preemptively declare victory before all the ballots are counted.

“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that,” he said.

The president’s major theme appeared, astoundingly, to be that there’s absolutely no way to hold a legitimate election at this point.“As far as the ballots are concerned, it's a disaster,” he said. 

When the debate moderator Fox News’s Chris Wallace pressed him about what should be done to protect the integrity of mail voting, which has already begun in many states, he didn’t answer. He did say that he’s “counting on” the U.S. Supreme Court – where the Senate is considering his appointment to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – to weigh in on mail voting. “I hope we don't need them, in terms of the election itself, but for the ballots, I think so,” he said. “Because what's happening is incredible.” 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, meanwhile, expressed confidence about the election’s legitimacy.  He charged that Trump’s goal is to depress voter turnout to aid his electoral chances. 

This is all about trying to dissuade people from voting because he's trying to scare people into thinking that it's not going to be legitimate,” he said. 

He urged Americans to “show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote.”

The volume of falsehoods was astounding even considering Trump’s frequent unfounded attacks on mail voting.

He claimed without evidence that mail ballots are being sold on the street by mail carriers and discovered in creeks and rivers.

He falsely claimed that his supporters were blocked from observing polls in Philadelphia, when in fact traditional polls are not open yet.

He cited a genuine case in which nine mail ballots mailed by military members were found discarded by election officials in Luzerne County, Pa. But he claimed without evidence that all the ballots included votes for him and that it was aimed at hurting his candidacy. In fact, seven of the nine ballots included votes for Trump but the other two remain sealed. Federal investigators are still investigating the case and the motives of the contractor who threw out the ballots remain unclear.

Here’s how CNN’s fact checker Daniel Dale summed it up on Twitter: “I'm not exaggerating when I say almost literally everything Donald Trump says about mail voting is wrong in whole or in part.”

Election officials and experts were quick to hit back at Trump’s claims during the debate.

Here’s David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy:

Michael G. Miller, a political science professor at Barnard College:

Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which focuses on combating disinformation: 

And Edward Perez, global director of technology development at OSET Institute, a nonprofit election technology organization:

Biden responded to Trump’s attacks largely by urging his supporters to vote – and providing extensive details about how to do that. 

The intense focus on the voting process harkened back to the Democratic National Convention when speaker after speaker urged Americans to “make a plan to vote.”

It was essentially an acknowledgement that mail voting is often more complex than in-person voting and will be unfamiliar to many people doing it for the first time during the pandemic. That could lead to legitimate votes that are discarded because of technicalities. 

Election officials in Pennsylvania, for example, are warning that as many as 100,000 mail ballots might be invalidated because voters failed to put their ballot inside a “secrecy envelope” designed to ensure voter privacy. 

During that portion of the debate Biden outlined mail voting procedures, urged patience while mail votes are counted and even described part of the process for voters to challenge when their ballots are invalidated. He also urged people to vote in person if they choose to and expressed confidence that polling sites will allow for sufficient social distancing during the pandemic.

“Vote whatever way is the best way for you,” Biden said. “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”

The keys

The Trump administration is looking into Chinese investments in U.S. tech start-ups for national security red flags.

The government committee that monitors foreign investments for national-security risks has sent dozens of inquiries about deals dating years back, Jeanne Whalen reports. 

The letters highlight the way White House national security concerns are escalating the increasingly contentious economic relationship between the United States and China.

The inquiries are the first steps for the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States in deciding whether it will investigate an investment, as it did with TikTok. 

CFIUS is most focused on companies and apps that collect sensitive personal information or are involved with critical technologies like batteries and biotechnology, lawyers familiar with the letters told Jeanne. 

Historically, it was unusual for [CFIUS] to reach back more than three years,  said Stephen Heifetz, a lawyer at Wilson Sonsini. But there is in theory no time limitation, and we are increasingly hearing about long reach-back periods.”

CFIUS has also sent agents to tech and venture capital leaders in Silicon Valley to warn them about Chinese investments, Jeanne reports.

A federal judge sentenced a hacker who stole over 100 million passwords from LinkedIn and other platforms to seven years in prison.

Yevgeniy Nikulin attempted to sell passwords and usernames from the 2012 breaches to other Russian cybercriminals, Jeff Stone at CyberScoop reports

Nikulin was charged in 2016 with nine felony counts, including computer intrusion and aggravated identity theft. He was found guilty in July, but his lawyers have argued that the government unfairly based his sentencing on identity theft losses that were never reported.

Foreign hackers are becoming more sophisticated, Microsoft says.

Ransomware and phishing attacks are growing in popularity among foreign hackers, according to a new annual digital defense report from the company. Attacks on internet-connected devices increased 35 percent and hackers continue to exploit vulnerabilities in virtual private networks to steal passwords, Microsoft found.

Covid-19 response efforts have become a key target. Microsoft observed 16 different nation-state actors using the pandemic to try lure victims or hack into groups involved in response efforts. Attackers have also increased how quickly they demand ransoms for data captured in attacks, believing that the pandemic has made regaining access to the data more critical, Microsoft said.

Hill happenings

The House unanimously passed four bills that would shore up U.S. energy infrastructure against cyberattacks.  

The bills would establish new Energy Department programs to enhance cybersecurity for the U.S. power grid, Maggie Miller at The Hill reports. The quartet of bills also addresses physical threats to the grid, such as wildfires.

More cybersecurity news:


  • The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on supply chain integrity on Thursday at 9:15 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 Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

Secure log off

Here's a blast from the SNL debate past:

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