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In election hacking, perception may be as good as the real thing

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Oct 28, 2020 - 05:08 AM

WASHINGTON — Hackers seeking to sow chaos in the November 3 election are hard at work — but some experts say they don’t need to be successful to have an impact.

Simply the perception of breaching election systems could have the same effect of undermining confidence in the outcome and opening the door to discrediting the results.

“Perception hacking can be just as effective if not more than an actual hack,” said Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group created to monitor foreign election interference.

Brandt said Russian operations have notably been aimed at creating a sense of vulnerability by breaching election databases in multiple US states and leaving “bread crumbs” that lead back to the Kremlin.

“Will they change votes? I don’t think so,” Brandt said. “But you don’t have to change a single vote to call into question the legitimacy of the electoral process.”

Perception hacking poses unique challenges because of concerns about vulnerabilities in many parts of the election infrastructure, including electronic voting machines, databases and transmission systems.

But experts say the system has become far more resilient in recent years.

“States have made considerable progress in the past four years to prevent, detect, and recover from cyberattacks and technical failures,” said Lawrence Norden and Derek Tisler of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.

“Election officials have developed contingency measures ensuring that in the event of a cyberattack, voting can continue while problems are discovered and resolved.”

They noted that many states have implemented recommendations for backup paper materials in polling places if electronic voting machines fail — addressing one key area.

“Because of these efforts, 2020 will in many respects be the most secure election the United States has ever had,” the researchers wrote.

Hyperbolic claims 

Despite last week’s announcement that Russian and Iran had both obtained US voter information, FBI and homeland security officials said they had no evidence to suggest the integrity of elections data has been compromised.

“Expect bad guys to try to misuse hyperbolic claims of ‘hacking’ election systems for perception hacking in the weeks to come. Don’t fall for it,” Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher tweeted.

But the news raised fears that the election results could be delegitimized by President Donald Trump or others.

“I think it’s unhelpful when our own leader is calling into question the legitimacy of our election process without evidence.” Brandt said.

“This is exactly the claim that Russia would like to promote. It’s giving them a narrative that they then can amplify.”

Feeding disinformation 

James Lewis, head of technology policy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said perception hacking is a longstanding technique used by spy agencies.

“The Russians talk about ‘reflexive control,’ where they provide information that leads the target to make the desired decision of their own volition,” Lewis said.

“It’s basically providing misinformation to get people to leap to the wrong conclusion. The Russians can use social media to amplify the effect, since the algorithms Facebook and others use can be manipulated.”

Austin Merritt of the security firm Digital Shadows said the latest developments portend a ramped up disinformation effort in the last week before the election by foreign actors, notably Russia.

“The Russian state is one of the most successful operators when it comes to conducting disinformation campaigns, and the well-trained cybercriminals operating on their behalf have already conducted influence operations in 2020,” Merritt said in a blog post.

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