Oct 21, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Trump’s former homeland security adviser says Russia remains major election hacking threat

Joseph Marks

Adversaries might also interfere with state and county systems that report vote tallies to sow mistrust in official results, said Bossert, who is now president of Trinity Cyber.

Bossert's concerns stand in sharp contrast to Trump, who has largely ignored or downplayed the threat of Russian interference in the election, claiming without evidence that a greater threat is posed by domestic fraud from mail ballots. 

But foreign interference would pay dividends for adversaries including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bossert said — even if it doesn’t result in corrupting the entire election process or delivering a reelection victory to Tump, which U.S. intelligence agencies say Putin prefers. 

The analysis for the Russians is win-win,” he told me. “They'll either persuade the U.S. electorate to reelect President Trump, which President Putin views as a positive development for his interests, or they will sully or in some way undermine or discredit the incoming [Joe] Biden presidency, which is also in Putin's interests.” 

Bossert is also concerned Trump and senior officials may not be willing to level with the public if foreign interference is detected in the election.

He pointed to Trump’s admission to Bob Woodward he had intentionally downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus during its early months because he didn’t want to panic the American people. 

“That's the wrong instinct in a crisis,” he said, warning a similar move to play down election interference could have dire consequences. 

If the instinct on anybody's part in this administration is to undersell or even mislead us about the extent of foreign intelligence operations, I think they will end up regretting it,” he said, “because the long-term effect of that will be to further erode public trust, not to further preserve it.”

Bossert has previously criticized Trump and White House officials over Trump’s urging the Ukrainian president to help dig up dirt on Biden, which led to the president's impeachment, and over his handling of the pandemic. He previously served in the George W. Bush White House.  

His warnings come as government officials are projecting confidence about the security of the election — but also warning adversaries might launch attacks in the home stretch. 

“We remain confident that no foreign cyber actor can change your vote, and we still believe that it would be incredibly difficult for them to change the outcome of an election at the national level,” Chris Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in a video address posted yesterday. 

Krebs warned “the days and weeks just before and after Election Day is the perfect time for our adversaries to launch efforts intended to undermine your confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.” 

Trump, meanwhile, has continued to attack the legitimacy of mail voting in numerous states — which has surged during the pandemic — and to claim without evidence that the election will be riddled with fraud. 

He also said he's being mistreated by various organizations including the Commission on Presidential Debates.Trump alleged on Twitter yesterday that his appearance in a forthcoming interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” was a form of “electoral intrusion,” seemingly equating tough questioning with U.S. adversaries’ efforts to manipulate votes and public opinion. 

State and local officials have made myriad security improvements since the 2016 election. 

During that contest, Kremlin hackers likely probed election systems in all 50 states and penetrated election-related computer networks in at least two states, according to U.S. intelligence officials and the Mueller report. 

Those upgrades include adding new cybersecurity protections and shifting to voting systems with paper records of votes as well as adding a network of cyber intrusion sensors provided by Department of Homeland Security.

But all those fixes may be insufficient if hackers are able to exploit weak protections in a few key counties in highly competitive states in the presidential election, Bossert said.

“Would it require a significant coordinated effort to exploit enough distributed vulnerable systems to poison the outcome? Yes, but that is exactly what we're concerned about,” he said. 

Bossert stopped short of saying Trump has made the election more vulnerable to foreign interference with his allegations.

He said that judgment should wait until the vote tallying, which will begin on election night itself but probably will continue for days or even weeks as some states process late-arriving mail ballots.

Bossert echoed numerous election officials in warning that Americans should be patient while that counting happens and not presume a possibly lengthy process means anything is amiss. 

“If he handles it in an irresponsible manner, then I'll be the first guy out to criticize him,” Bossert said of Trump. “And I understand that he's got a track record of putting confusion in public messaging around important points.” 

The keys

Microsoft has disabled 94 percent of the infrastructure of a Russian-run botnet that threatened the U.S. election. 

Microsoft feared the Russian-speaking criminals that ran the powerful network of zombie computers dubbed Trickbot could use it to lock up voter registration and election night reporting systems, Jay Greene reports

Although that wouldn't change the results of the election, it could dramatically shake voter confidence.  

Microsoft first took legal steps to dismantle the botnet more than a week ago, but researchers warned large parts of its foreign infrastructure remained untouched. The latest move has dismantled much more of that infrastructure and was taken in cooperation with the company's international partners. 

U.S. Cyber Command and Europol have launched their own campaigns to take down the botnet.

Mail service has slowed in key swing states, potentially delaying mail-in ballots.  

The delays are hitting Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, which do not accept ballots that arrive after Election Day even if they're postmarked beforehand, and are heavily contested in the presidential race, Jacob Bogage and Christopher Ingraham report

In the states that have seen slower mail, nearly 16 out of 100 items didn't arrive within the Postal Service's one-to-three-day delivery window. In Detroit, only 70 percent of first-class mail arrived in the delivery window during the first week of October. Delivery times in large parts of Wisconsin have fallen to just 84 percent landing within the delivery window.  

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency is actively working to handle the increase in election mail volume across the country over the next two weeks. But some postal workers say that they're still being asked to focus on package delivery over ballots.

An A.I. chatbot hosted on the encrypted messaging app Telegram created fake nudes from photos of more than 100,000 women without their consent.

The images included the targeted woman's face coupled with a realistic but fake nude body,  Drew Harwell reports. The gallery of photos made by the bot included images of women under 18.

The service is triggering concerns that increasingly easy access to artificial intelligence technology could lead to new avenues for harassment or blackmail.

It’s just another way people have found to weaponize technology against women. Once this stuff gets online, that’s it. Every potential boyfriend or girlfriend, your employer, your family, may end up seeing it,” said Hany Farid, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in digital-image forensics. Farid pinned the ubiquity of the technology on the lack of attention in the male-dominated tech industry to how emerging technologies could be exploited against women.

Thousands of users subscribed to the channel hosting the images, which was exposed by researchers at the cybersecurity start-up Sensity.

The bot’s administrators denied any wrongdoing. They disabled chat and gallery features but have left up the service for creating new images. Representatives for Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill happenings

A new bipartisan bill would authorize states to use the National Guard for cybersecurity support.

The bipartisan legislation, shared exclusively with the Cybersecurity 202 ahead of its release, could help states shore up defenses against an increase in ransomware attacks that have crippled schools and local businesses in recent years. The National Guard includes a lot of troops with cybersecurity expertise but it’s not always clear how states can make use of those skills, bill sponsor Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said. She introduced the bill with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

Cyberattacks can jeopardize our national security, shut down electrical grids, and threaten the operations of our hospitals and schools we must ensure that the National Guard can help with these types of threats just like any other threat that states face, Hassan said in a statement.

More news from The Hill:

Chat room

Trump made some far-fetched claims about cybersecurity during a rally in Tucson while taking a jab at C-SPAN host Steve Scully who falsely claimed he was hacked. 

Experts were quick to point out he's way off base. Here's Third Way's Mieke Eoyang:

In fact, Trump's own hotel chain was once hacked, TechCrunch's Zack Whittaker noted:

Twitter's new chief information security officer had a succinct response.

Maybe it takes more than 15 percent of a password? Former NSA analyst Jake Williams:

Cyber insecurity

Chinese hackers are targeting networks belonging to the Defense Department and the defense industry, the NSA warns.

Chinese state-sponsored actors are using a full array of tactics and techniques to try to access sensitive intellectual property, economic, political and military information, the alert said, Dustin Volz at the Wall Street Journal reports

Global cyberspace

Sweden banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G networks.

The European Union member joins a growing number of governments in the bloc that have rejected the Chinese companies based on national security concerns, Reuters reports. U.S. officials have accused the Chinese government of using the companies as a back door for espionage. Huawei has repeatedly denied the claims. 

More cybersecurity news:


  • 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.
  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on November 17-18, from 11:00am-3:00pm ET.

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