US bolsters cyber defences amid vote-hacking worries
The US is bolstering its cyber defences against the threat of a possible attack on its voting systems and manipulation of social media posts ahead of the upcoming presidential election on 8 November.
Concerns are rife that foreign organisations located in Russia or elsewhere will attempt to spread political misinformation online or tamper with voting.
To counter the cyber threat, all but two US states have accepted help from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to probe and scan voter registration and election systems for vulnerabilities.
Ohio has asked a cyber-protection unit of the National Guard, a reserve force within the US military, for assistance to protect the state’s systems and Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan recently met with FBI officials and the DHS to discuss cyber threats.
However, cyber-security experts and US officials have downplayed the possibility that a hack could alter the outcome of the election because voting machines are typically not connected to the internet.
However, the FBI did send a flash alert to states in August after detecting breaches in voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois.
Unidentified intelligence officials told NBC News on Thursday that there is no specific warning about an election-day attack, but they remain concerned that hackers from Russia or elsewhere may try to disrupt the process, probably by spreading misinformation through manipulation of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Concerns have been mounting in recent weeks about hacks originating from Russia, with Microsoft blaming a group with links to the country’s government for a series of cyber-attacks that exploited a newly discovered security flaw in its Windows operating system.
But cyber security isn’t the only concern with regards to the upcoming election. The potential for violence has also loomed in the background for months. Armed groups around the country have pledged in unprecedented numbers to monitor voting sites for signs of election fraud.
Voter intimidation reported at polling sites so far prompted Democrats to accuse Trump of a “campaign of vigilante voter intimidation” in four states on Monday.
But local authorities in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida were recently surveyed and said they were not increasing election-related law enforcement personnel or resources above 2012 levels.
The FBI, which designates one special agent from each of its 56 field offices for election crime matters, has not increased its numbers or given staff additional training this year, said an FBI spokeswoman.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents hundreds of thousands of US officers, said cops are taking the same security measures they would take for any large event. He said he expects the vows by militias to monitor the polls to be “a lot of talk, little action.”
Civil rights groups said deploying more police officers to the polls can actually intimidate voters.
“The presence of law enforcement can have a chilling effect on the electorate,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a watchdog group. “That’s something we want to discourage.”