New England politicians convene with election security experts
New England state officials and others learned about nationwide election cybersecurity concerns during a workshop Thursday afternoon.
The University of Southern California Cybersecurity Initiative held a regional election security workshop for New England’s six states Thursday, with remarks from academic experts and a discussion with the more than 70 participants.
The event, which focused on cybersecurity, misinformation and disinformation, among other subjects, was meant to aid New England states in election preparedness. It was attended by election officials from throughout the state, including southeastern Connecticut.
The USC initiative is a “non-partisan independent project supported by Google to educate people working in campaigns and elections on cybersecurity practices through workshops held across the country in all 50 states. The workshops led by academics, cybersecurity groups and government agencies focused on cyber safety & security,” according to USC’s website.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy introduced the disinformation and misinformation portion of the proceedings.
“One of the things I hope you will talk about today is the importance of combating misinformation. I know we can get bogged down in technical conversation … But we are deluged right now with outside entities, state actors, Russians, Chinese, or Iranians, who either have active programs or designs to alter our elections through misinformation,” Murphy said. “We have to be laser focused as a nation to make sure our content platforms root out that foreign-sponsored information so that when our voters are making decisions about candidates they are basing that choice on information that comes from America.”
Murphy’s remarks were a precursor to the presentation of Sarah Mojarad of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. She defined disinformation as intentionally designed to mislead, where as misinformation is false information that is spread without a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Mojarad brought up case studies of how misinformation and disinformation online can have an impact on the real world. For example, she showed a fake Associated Press tweet from a decade ago saying the White House had been bombed — the false tweet was responsible for S&P 500 to drop in value by $136.5 billion.
“Even a decade ago, our systems were interlinked with social media,” Mojarad said. And, “Once something is debunked on social media, it doesn’t just disappear from the internet.”
Mojarad warned of bots created by foreign governments to sow discord among the American public, noting that when polarization is high, “misinformation proliferates.” She said people should be careful to not share misinformation and disinformation, they should disengage from online communities that share misinformation and when they can, and they should report instances of misinformation or disinformation to online platforms.
Clifford Neuman, the director of USC’s center for computer systems security, said Thursday that it’s important to recognize what an “adversary” is trying to accomplish when seeking to disrupt an election.
Neuman said adversaries may want to manipulate vote tallies by subverting election staff or tampering with voter rolls, or through cyberattacks, for example. Adversaries have resorted to is disinformation through micro targeting ads or stealing data from campaigns. He said that the manipulation of voters can also achieve the goal of disrupting an election.
“You can change the outcome of an election if you can change the view of the voters,” Neuman said.
Neuman was one of several speakers to bring up “The Big Lie,” that the 2020 election was somehow rigged. He said such a narrative “limits the ability of those who have been elected to carry out their duties as our candidates.” Neuman said the U.S. determined Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-affiliated actors “materially impacted the security of networks associated with or pertaining to U.S. political organizations,” but not actual vote tallies, though those are also at risk.
He cautioned local election officials and other election security actors to protect against phishing, ransomware and malware attacks.
Kim Wyman, the senior election security lead at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the department is most concerned about cybersecurity.
“The threats that we saw going back to 2016 really haven’t gone away. They’ve gotten wider and more pervasive,” Wyman said.
The second priority is physical security threats.
“These are threats to polling places and election offices as well as the physical security of our election officials and voters and the like,” Wyman said.
The third is malinformation meant to “undermine people’s confidence in the election system.”
During his remarks, New Hampshire Secretary of the State David Scanlan said election officials are “facing a tremendous amount of scrutiny about our election processes” this cycle as a result of the pandemic election in 2020.
Michael Coden, associate director of cybersecurity at MIT Sloan, said the best way to prepare against cyberattacks is to prepare for every possibility.