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How election officials protect results data from cyberattacks, disinformation

The FBI has warned of bad actors or cybercriminals disrupting election night reporting websites. Here’s what you need to know going into Tuesday.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Where will you get your information on Election night? 

How safe is it from cybercriminals trying to discredit or undermine our election results and the democratic process?

Cybersecurity is a huge focus for election officials. They run training exercises and work before, during and after elections to make sure your vote is protected.

“Some sort of attack on the fundamental concept of our representative democracy, which is providing election results, is at the forefront of our mind, which is why you never have a single point of failure,” said Julie Marcus, Supervisor of Elections for Pinellas County.

Before the 2018 election, we went into the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office and brought professional hackers with us to check out their voting systems.

“Everyone in this building is always on guard for potential threats. Whether it’s picking up a USB in the parking lot or potentially clicking on an email upstairs. We have spent a considerable amount of time making sure these systems are all accurate and secure,” Deputy Supervisor Dustin Chase said.

The 2020 General Election presents a new threat: disinformation.

The warnings from the FBI to the public involve election night results pages pushed out by local and state election officials.

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information,” the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency wrote.

“The website that provides for election night reporting, ENR, is not the same website that provides our day-to-day website operations that voters see every day. But there are also other processes we have in place that we can then fall back to. And if it literally means posting PDFs of the tabulation report that we print out every 15 minutes, we do what we're going to have to do to make sure that voters have confidence in the process and that we are transparent,” Marcus said.

With systems separated, the cybersecurity experts at the federal level say you need to know that the underlying results data and those voting systems would remain uncompromised.

Clinton Daniel, a cybersecurity specialist at the University of South Florida, says the focus of cybersecurity is protecting against attacks on confidentiality, integrity – in this case, election results –  and availability. 

Denial of service attacks are a threat to the availability of information. The goal would be to knock out your access to election results.

“We put controls in place so bad actors don’t ruin the confidentiality, integrity and availability of that system, but then the more complicated piece is what people do because we’re humans,” he said.

Daniel says with layers of security, educating the public is key. 

“Be mindful that these things could happen and if you see it, what’s an inappropriate response because people are really the weakest link when it comes to cybersecurity and social engineering,” he said.

The FBI and CISA recommend you: 

  • Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials; verify who produced the content and consider their intent.
  • Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results, and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.
  • For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials.
  • Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time or place of voting—to the FBI.
  • If appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election-related problems or results.

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