During remarks at a cybersecurity summit at Salve Regina University's Pell Center, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gobea said computer-based attacks highlight the need for physical voter records and ballots.
(TNS) — Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea told her audience on Friday how during the March 2016 presidential primary she was accused on election-related websites of rigging the election in favor of Hillary Clinton to the detriment of Bernie Sanders and closing down polling sites.
"A year later it was determined that Bernie bots of the Russian Internet Research Agency were at work," Gorbea said. "If your head is spinning, believe me, everyone's head is spinning."
Gorbea was addressing more than 140 election officials and information technology experts who gathered for a five-hour Cybersecurity Summit at Salve Regina University's Pell Center in Newport.
Media were allowed to listen for 1 ½ hours, but then cleared out before speakers like Noah Praetz, a senior election security advisor with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Jessica Cone, a specialist with the U.S. Elections Infrastructure — Information Sharing and Analysis Center, made their presentations.
"We don't want to give away our game plan," Gorbea said.
Francesca Spidalieri, a senior fellow for cyber leadership at the Pell Center, talked early in the day about the ransomware attack in New Bedford, Mass., in July when access was blocked to 158 city computers.
Hackers used software to encrypt computer data and then demanded a Bitcoin payment equal to $5.3 million to decrypt. New Bedford refused and eventually recovered data, but could not access all encrypted servers.
Spidalieri and other speakers said during election periods, a ransomware attack could deny access to voter registration data, election results and other sensitive information.
"The threat is real," Gorbea said.
At the summit, election officials learned what they could do. For example, more network security can be achieved by installing intrusion detection systems that identify infections before they can cause too much damage.
James Ludes, the Pell Center's vice president for public research and initiatives, said during his presentation that at least 21 states have had their election systems targeted and accessed by hackers associated with Russian intelligence.
In Illinois, they showed they could change voter data, he said.
Gorbea said it was important to maintain paper records of voter information and ballots so people can cast provisional ballots and apparent changes can be investigated.
Multiple nation-states now engage in active disinformation and cyber-attacks, including the Russians, Chinese and Iranians that are of the most concern to the U.S. currently, Ludes said.
Besides interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, Russian hackers actively interfered in Great Britain's Brexit vote, European Union parliamentary elections, the Scottish National Party's independence vote, and the Catalan independence vote, Ludes said.
With relatively small investments, nation-state hackers can disrupt democratic processes, undermine trust in election results, and raise doubts about the value of democracy, he said.
They have used race in America to sow divisiveness, Ludes said. He talked about social media sites that rally hundreds of thousands of followers to react to phony racial stories and causes disseminated by the Internet Research Agency based in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
The online influence operations of the agency were discussed by participants at the conference. The agency, with connections to Russian intelligence operations, employs fake accounts registered on major social networking sites to promote Russian interests and disrupt relations in foreign countries.
They create an alternate reality to spread fear and undermine confidence in democratic institutions, Ludes said.
He showed a "synthetic video" of Barack Obama created by computer software that used a real photo of Obama and sound from him to make him say things he never said.
"It is remarkable and terrifying," he said.
Going into the 2020 presidential and Congressional elections, the nation can expect to see more fake online videos like this, he said.
A participant in the audience asked whether forensics can be used reliably to detect the fake videos.
"It's debatable," Ludes answered. "The technology is getting better and better."
Even when detected, fake videos have already been widely disseminated, he said.
"A lie goes half way around the world before truth gets its pants on," Ludes said.
Injecting fake social media posts and videos into a polarized and hyped-up electorate is dangerous, he said.
"We need to speak with one voice about the reality of this threat," he added.
A U.S. grand jury in February 2018 indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere "with U.S. elections and political processes," according to the Justice Department.
The Russian agency bought at least 3,500 race-related ads on Facebook and incited anti-immigrant feelings with phony accounts such as "United Muslims of America" to sow mistrust and make false claims, Ludes said.
Companies like Facebook have undertaken some anti-misinformation initiatives, but no legislation has been passed, Ludes said. In standard media political ads, it is required to say who paid for the ad, he pointed out. That is not the case with social media ads, he said.
"The more interconnected we have become, the more vulnerable we have become," Spidalieri said.
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