Oct 8, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Pence echoes Trump’s unfounded attacks on the election in debate

Joseph Marks

The vice president’s comments were delivered in a far more measured tone than the president’s angry bluster during the first debate. But they’re likely to be just as worrisome for election officials and voters who fear the Trump campaign wants to undermine the election’s integrity and subvert the peaceful transfer of power.

The attack on mail voting was especially jarring because it comes as top officials in the Trump administration are making a final press to ensure Americans that both mail and in-person votes will be secure against interference by Russian hackers and other malfeasance

Indeed, multiple studies have found that fraud in both in-person and mail voting is miniscule.

Pence steered clear of the president’s most bombastic claims. 

He said he does believe it’s possible to have a “free and fair election” at this point – something Trump pointedly did not do during the first debate.   

But he echoed the president’s boundary-crossing rhetoric when he refused to give an answer about what should happen if Trump loses the election and refuses to leave office. 

Instead, he pivoted to attacking investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the House impeachment of the president. 

“When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I just tell you, senator, your party spent the last three-and-a-half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It's amazing,” he said. 

Vice presidential nominee and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) also declined to outline a Biden strategy if Trump refuses to concede. 

Instead, she accused Trump of actively trying to “suppress the vote” and urged Biden supporters to “vote; vote early; come up with a plan to vote.”

“We will not let anyone subvert our democracy,” she said. 

Here’s Richard N. Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Pence also joined the president in touting Russian intelligence that’s at least dubious and may be outright false. 

“The FBI actually spied on President Trump's and my campaign. There were documents released this week that The CIA actually made a referral to the FBI, documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign,” he said, referring to portions of a Russian intelligence estimate recently declassified by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a Trump ally. 

Democrats have accused Ratcliffe of politicizing intelligence and trying to help Trump's campaign.

Post columnist Josh Rogin:

NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell:

The vice president did not otherwise address Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — or Trump's hesitancy to accept it.

And he was silent about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia is actively interfering in the 2020 election through disinformation campaigns. 

Harris hammered the president on that point, saying “Donald Trump, the commander in chief of the United States of America, prefers to take the world of Vladimir Putin over the word of the American intelligence community.”

But when the vice president responded he never addressed that criticism. Pence spoke instead about a slew of other topics including moving the U.S. embassy in Israel  to Jerusalem and Trump’s ordering the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. 

Intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia favors Trump’s reelection and China, which has also launched disinformation campaigns targeting the election, favors Biden.

Pence also mischaracterized a slew of lawsuits the Trump campaign has launched or joined aimed at restricting how ballots can be cast and counted. 

“President Trump and I are fighting every day in courthouses to prevent Joe Biden and Kamala Harris from changing the rules, creating this universal mail in voting creating massive opportunity for voter fraud,” he said. 

In fact, those lawsuits mostly aim to roll back changes made by election officials and state legislatures.

The changes are aimed at making it easier to vote and run elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, some lawsuits challenge state and county plans to begin processing mail ballots earlier so they don’t delay calling races. Others challenge states accepting mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive later. 

The GOP and Trump campaign haven’t fared very well in those suits

“A review by The Washington Post of nearly 90 state and federal voting lawsuits found that judges have been broadly skeptical as Republicans use claims of voter fraud to argue against such changes, declining to endorse the GOP’s arguments or dismissing them as they examined limits on mail voting,” Elise Viebeck reported. “In no case did a judge back President Trump’s view — refuted by experts — that fraud is a problem significant enough to sway a presidential election.”

The campaign has done particularly poorly when it challenged state decisions to send mail ballots directly to all registered voters during the pandemic – what Trump and Pence call “universal mail ballots.” 

The campaign dropped cases challenging such plans in California and Nevada and effectively lost another case in New Jersey this week when a judge declined to stop ballots from being sent out. The campaign never bothered to file suit over similar plans in Vermont and the District of Columbia. 

And it’s been essentially silent about mail voting in five states that have historically voted almost entirely by mail without any significant fraud or even technical hiccups. 

Here’s Carrie Cordero, a former Justice Department official who’s now a senior fellow and general counsel at the Center for a New American Security:

The keys

Hackers used Trump's covid-19 diagnosis to steal people’s data. 

The cybersecurity firm Proofpoint, which discovered the campaign, couldn't say who was behind it. 

The messages claimed to have materials related to the president's covid-19 diagnosis and included a hyperlink to a document infected with malware. That malware was designed to steal users passwords and other information. 

The attack shows how quickly hackers have been able to leverage political crises for new scams. Just last week Proofpoint researchers unearthed another phishing campaign in which hackers posed as representatives from  the Democratic National Committee.  

Social media platforms favored by conservatives aren’t taking down alleged Russian disinformation. 

Phony claims that weren’t removed by Parler and Gab include that left-wing activists infected Trump with the coronavirus and that mail-in voting leads to fraud, Craig Timberg reports.

Accounts from the same operation were removed by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after an FBI tip triggered an investigation. 

This appears to be the first-known Russian disinformation operation on the conservative social media sites, researchers at Graphika said. The disinformation, which largely denigrates Biden and promotes Trump, "resembled" a 2016 campaign linked to Russia’s notorious Internet Research Agency troll farm.

The platform's refusal to remove the content is a stark contrast with efforts by mainstream platforms that have tried to crack down on election disinformation since 2016. “There is a bipartisan consensus that information operations by foreign actors are a threat to the integrity of democracies, and this principle should not stop at the gates of smaller platforms,” John Kelly, chief executive of Graphika, said.

The Trump administration is exploring restrictions on the payment platforms of WeChat’s Chinese owner. 

The administration believes Tencent's digital payments platform threatens national security because it could help the Chinese government steal U.S. customers' data, Bloomberg's Nick Wadhams, Saleha Mohsin and Jennifer Jacobs report. Officials have similar concerns about Ant Group, a payment platform created by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, Bloomberg reports. 

Authorities haven't decided what restrictions they might impose on the companies. The restrictions could be similar to an August executive orders banning TikTok and WeChat. Any action by the White House has the potential to upset the Chinese government and kick off retaliation including diplomatic and courtroom battles.

The United States seized 92 domain names used by Iran's military to spread disinformation.

Four of the domains posed as genuine news outlets but were controlled by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and targeted the United States with pro-Iranian propaganda, according to a Justice Department news release.

The FBI was tipped off about the pages by Google. The investigation was a collaboration with Google, Facebook and Twitter, according to the news release.

“We will continue to use all of our tools to stop the Iranian government from misusing U.S. companies and social media to spread propaganda covertly, to attempt to influence the American public secretly, and to sow discord,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.  

Securing the ballot

Facebook will temporarily halt all U.S. political ads after polls close on Nov. 3. 

The platform previously committed to suspend running new ads the week before the election, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports. The platform will also ban content that uses militaristic or threatening language like “army” and “battle”  to call for poll watchers. The rules will also apply to posts by politicians including Trump. 

More election security news:

Global cyberspace

There's "clear evidence of collusion" between Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party, a new U.K. parliamentary report finds.

The report from the U.K. House of Common's defense committee could cause the British government to speed up its timetable for fully removing Huawei from its 5G network, BBC News reports. The report also endorses proposals for democracies to come together to build alternatives to Huawei. 

More cybersecurity news:

Chat room

Jokes only cybersecurity professionals could love:


  • The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is hosting an online symposium on Data and Democracy on October 15 and 16.
  • New America will host an event "Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones" on Oct. 21 at noon.
  • The USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative will host a final workshop on the lessons from the workshops its hosted in 50 states leading up to the election on October 28 at 1:30 p.m.

Secure log off

The most captivating moment of the debate:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) got the last laugh of the night:

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