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How the government is guarding against 2018 election threats

Officials in every state will be watching Tuesday's voting process intensely in the face of numerous threats and prior attempts to meddle with American elections. What threats are they guarding against, and where are the threats coming from? Nick Schifrin joins William Brangham for a closer look.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As millions of Americans go to the polls tomorrow, election officials in every state will be watching the process intensely.

    In the face of numerous threats and prior attempts to meddle with American elections, federal and state officials are trying to step up their defenses.

    The NewsHour's William Brangham and Nick Schifrin take a closer look.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what are the kinds of threats that officials are guarding against? Where are they coming from?

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin has been following all this closely.

    Nick, there's been a lot of concerns raised in just the last couple of days about this coming election. We saw the president tweeting today about how there is going to be a severe crackdown on illegal voting, although we know there's no evidence that that ever really occurs.

    We saw in Georgia the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who is overseeing the election that he is running in, accuse Democrats of hacking into the voting rolls there, again, with no evidence.

    You have been covering legitimate threats that we do know about with regards to foreign actors. What are those threats?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The threats are twofold in terms of hacking, psychological hacking and real hacking. Those are the things that we have been covering for last two years and we're focused on for 2018.

    And psychological is changing people's opinions, like we have seen in 2016, trying to convince people to vote for or against a candidate, and also to sow discord, to create some kind of doubt about the election results.

    And the means that we're seeing this year are just like 2016, fake Facebook accounts, manipulative Twitter bots, fake Google ads. And this is less from Russia this year and more from Iran.

    About 10 days ago, Facebook took down 82 pages from Iran, after they took 600 down in August. We have got a few examples of what that looks like, fake liberal groups depicting President Trump in a negative light.

    Another group tries to foment division by contrasting Brett Kavanaugh, who is saying his life has been destroyed to young black men who were killed by police. And another group explicitly references the election using Michelle Obama.

    And there's a new technique that we have seen in 2018, fake text messages. Two examples of this. Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, who, as you know, is running for governor in Florida, may be under a criminal investigation.

    Now, the reality is, there is an FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee's city government, get Gillum has said FBI agents told him he's not the investigations's target.

    And text number two: "This is President Trump. Your early vote has not been recorded on Indiana's roster."

    Now, that is obviously fake.

    So that is the psychological aspect and the real hacking. We are absolutely not seen the levels that we saw in 2016 of hacking into people's accounts to create discord, disseminate information and e-mails, for example.

    What we are seeing are concerns of what we saw a little bit in 2016, which is hacking before the vote. So this is hacking Web sites that have registration information or polling location information.

    And security experts we speak to say, this really could be effective, one, because the Web sites aren't that guarded, don't have much security. And, two, in a midterm election that is diffuse, if you create some kind of lack of confidence in people's vote, or any kind of suppression of the vote, that could have a big impact.

  • William Brangham:

    So, given this varied misinformation campaign that's going on there, what are the federal government agencies doing to protect?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The agencies say they're much more aware and they're sharing information. So they're going to share information with the states.

    And there's a new fusion center, as we know, that is going to do that. But there's real timing issues here. The FBI's influence task force starts after the election, for example. There are some cyber-offensives going on to try and deter some of these actors and $380 million from Congress.

    But at the end of the day, William, these efforts are coming very late in the day. And one expert puts it this way: "Frankly, at the end of the day, for 2018, we have done very, very little to improve our defenses."

  • William Brangham:

    And, as we know, elections are really run by the states, 50 different little states, each running their own systems.

    What are they doing to protect against all this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They're doing various things. And some of them are resisting federal help and some of them are accepting federal help.

    But the fact is, they need a lot of federal help. And let's listen just to Steve Simon, Minnesota's secretary of state, speaking in June.

  • Steve Simon:

    Imagine a car thief casing a parking lot. And maybe he goes there a day or two in a row and he takes up binoculars and he observes traffic patterns. And he tries to figure out, is there a way in?

    There are a lot of people case ago lot of parking lots. And it's up to DHS to tell us who they are, what they're for. And, so far, they have done that belatedly with respect to the 2016 election. We didn't know until months afterwards, but they're doing, I think, a better job every day of that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The other problem, of course, is hardware inside of these states.

    Old voting machines are hackable. Sometimes, they're not as reliable as they need to be. And some of them have a lack of paper trail. And this is key, because if there is any hack or claim of a hack, there needs to be a paper trail in order to make sure that their votes actually counted.

    There are five states that have no paper trail at all. And nine states use a combination of paper and electronic voting, some of which, again, William, doesn't leave a paper trail.

  • William Brangham:

    But I know your reporting is also finding that there are good collaborations between states and companies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There is unprecedented collaboration between companies and also between companies and the government, and not only the Facebooks, the Googles, the Twitters of the world, but smaller companies that are really trying to help out.

    And these are the key aspects of whether 2018 will be better than 2016. There's a company, for example, called Lookout. And we spent some time on Capitol Hill with CSO Mike Murray. He taught staffers how easy it is to hack into cell phones.

    And he wanted to make this point, that hacking attempts were getting better by the day, and the 2016 hacks were relatively unsophisticated.

  • Mike Murray:

    That was practice compared to where it's going to go from here. And so the — I hate to be the doom and gloom guy because it's usually not my nature, but you have to realize that the attackers know how to take advantage of this technology better than the average person knows how to protect themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    William, another company, Synack. And we spent some time with CEO Jay Kaplan. He's a former National Security Agency ethical hacker, and he implored the government to do more.

  • Jay Kaplan:

    I think if you just look at our preparedness today, while we certainly have made great strides, we're just not doing enough. And I without a doubt anticipate that we will see some sort of cyber-security incident.

    My big concern, quite frankly, is losing confidence in the integrity of our votes. Once one vote is compromised, I think it puts our entire electoral system into jeopardy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that is how fragile, William, some people think it is. That's also how seriously some private companies are taking this.

    And one last point. We will not know entirely this story tomorrow. There's a requirement that the director of national intelligence produce a report about what happens tomorrow 45 days after the election. And only then will we begin to know really what happened tomorrow.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick Schifrin, thanks so much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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