Post-election vote tallying raises fresh security concerns

Eric Tucker And Ben Fox
·4 min read

WASHINGTON — Election Day came and went without any overt signs of foreign interference affecting the vote, but that doesn’t mean the risk has faded.

A prolonged vote-tallying period in swing states raises the prospect of multiple security concerns, including foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns that could sow doubt in the process as well as actual digital manipulation of vote tabulation. Even so, there have been no indications of any foreign activity that could alter the vote count or stop votes from being tallied.

A look at some of the potential problems in the days ahead:

DISINFORMATION SPREAD

Intentionally false information and propaganda have been constant during the 2020 contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden, including threatening but fake emails that were sent to Democratic voters last month that U.S. officials have linked to Iran.

There's no reason to expect disinformation to stop now. It could even become more prevalent as troublemakers at home and abroad seek to create further tension and chaos and to exploit the lingering uncertainty surrounding the vote by inventing bogus claims.

By Wednesday morning, inauthentic Twitter accounts were promoting false or unverified allegations of fraud or advancing Trump’s unsupported claims of impropriety in the counting of ballots, said Christopher Bouzy, the creator of Botsentinel.com, a platform to detect disinformation on social media. Those include social media claims that Trump supporters were not able to vote because of broken machines or reiterating Trump's baseless claims about counterfeit ballots, Bouzy said.

In addition, state-owned Russian and Iranian media have been exaggerating election-related unrest in the U.S., said Clint Watts and Rachel Chernaskey, foreign influence experts who appeared in an online forum Wednesday hosted by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Groups within the U.S. are using their own private networks to spread fake information in hopes of mobilizing protests in the coming days, they said.

“If the election was a hockey match for disinformation, we are right at the first intermission and we're just dropping the puck for the second period. The period from now to Inauguration Day, regardless of the outcome, is going to be extremely chaotic in terms of the information space and knowing what to believe," Watts said.

Experts from the Stanford University-affiliated Election Integrity Partnership reported no significant foreign disinformation since polls closed on Tuesday but said they expected to see mounting online efforts by Trump supporters to try to delegitimize election results.

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WEBSITE BREAK-INS

A persistent concern from election security officials is that foreign hackers could hack websites and post misleading disinformation on them — or create spoofed websites. Trump's campaign website was briefly hijacked last week by apparent cryptocurrency scammers who claimed to have incriminating evidence against him.

Website intruders could rattle voter confidence by publishing claims that hackers have gained access to secure election infrastructure, especially if they simultaneously were to produce fake results or other disinformation meant to intimidate or cause panic.

Officials have highlighted the threat in public service announcements from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity arm. The Justice Department in September charged two men with damaging multiple websites in apparent retaliation for the targeted U.S. killing of Iran's top general months earlier.

Websites that report election results are also a target through “distributed denial of service attacks,” which make servers unreachable by flooding them with several hundred million requests per second. But normal heavy traffic can also make unprepared sites unreachable, adding to concerns of federal and local officials.

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MANIPULATION OF THE VOTE COUNT

The vote-tallying process itself is a target for interference. Election security experts say the day after polls close can be especially risky, especially if the election is close and the count protracted, as the U.S. is now facing.

“In addition to disinformation and false accusations of fraud, it creates opportunities for adversaries to commit real fraud by attacking the counting process and the integrity of the ballots,” tweeted J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist.

“Adversaries (of all kinds) now know more clearly where they need to intervene to affect the outcome,” he wrote, noting that in some voting jurisdictions election-management servers connect to the internet to receive votes while scanners that tally mail-in ballots also connect to them, giving attackers a potential route.

Matt Blaze, an election security expert at Georgetown University, said his biggest concern over possible interference is how few states require or perform post-election audits of tabulation results.

“This means that if there is a software failure, whether though malice or just innocent error, in the tabulation equipment, there is no opportunity in most states to detect the problem and correct the outcome,” said Blaze.

The most efficient methods for do this are statistically rigorous “risk-limiting audits,” but only a few states do it.

Colorado, Georgia and Rhode Island are running legally binding, statewide risk-limiting audits this election. Pennsylvania and Michigan are among states conducting pilots.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

Eric Tucker And Ben Fox, The Associated Press