Security experts monitoring cyber-chatter for virtual and real-world threats against U.S. Election Day targets say so far, so good. They don’t believe there will be cyberattack or al-Qaeda terror attack come Election Day.
That’s not to say the U.S. government isn’t ready for the worst. The White House has ordered the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, the Defense Department and the CIA to prepare for a possible cyberattack. According to news reports, those agencies are on “high alert.”
But Ian Gray, intelligence analyst at Flashpoint, said despite hack-the-vote chatter “vote tampering during the upcoming election is highly unlikely and confidence in the U.S. voting system will remain strong.”
When it comes to Internet-based discussions from within the jihadi community, Flashpoint researchers said that over the weekend ISIS’s official al-Hayat Media released a special-issue article titled, “The Murtadd Vote,” focused on the upcoming U.S. elections. But after examining the contents of the latest propaganda, Flashpoint said their didn’t appear to be any overt calls for violence.
“Despite recent media reports citing an al-Qaida terrorist threat to New York, Texas, and Virginia on the day before the 2016 U.S. elections, Flashpoint analysts have seen no specific threats from official terrorist groups nor sources in the online jihadi community to this effect,” authors Alex Kassirer, senior counterterrorism analyst at Flashpoint and Evan Kohlmann, chief innovation officer at Flashpoint wrote in a recent security bulletin.
According to Kassirer and Kohlmann, online sympathizers of al-Qaida, as well as ISIS, are taking to social media and closed forums and are expressing “moderate interest” in striking U.S.-based polling stations. “There is nonetheless a tradition within the jihadi community of promoting the U.S. electoral process and polling stations as valid targets. Broadly speaking, jihadi activists view attacks targeting the U.S. election as beneficial not merely for their symbolic value, but also the logistical advantages they present,” according to the report.
Flashpoint says jihadists aren’t promoting physical attacks, rather they are encouraging their U.S.-based sympathizers not to vote. “Despite an abundance of rhetoric asserting that ISIS favors Trump, the group denounced both sides of the Presidential election as a means of further discouraging Muslims from voting,” Flashpoint wrote.
“The only differences between Trump and Clinton are that Clinton is more skilled in ‘political correctness,’ giving her leverage in the sorcery of hypocrisy, that she is a female feminist – and the Prophet said, ‘Never shall a people who give their leadership to a woman be successful’ – and that Trump is impulsive and unpredictable,” according to al-Hayat Media’s special-issue focused on the US elections that came out Nov. 5, 2016.
Flashpoint said it has not observed any specific online threats of physical attacks on Election Day.
As for cyberattacks, despite worries of Mirai-fueled IoT botnet attacks and reports of foreign governments meddling with U.S. elections, Flashpoints says threats are less than urgent.
Flashpoint’s has been focusing attention “independent” Romanian hacker dubbed “Guccifer 2.0,” who claims to have provided WikiLeaks with a significant data dump of sensitive Clinton Foundation documents. Gray credits Guccifer with to some degree “disrupted the track of the U.S. election.”
Despite Guccifer 2.0’s insistence of independence last month, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a statement saying that it was confident that the Russian Government was tightly linked to Guccifer 2.0. Flashpoint concurred stating, “The tactics recently employed by WikiLeaks, DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0 were noted for their resemblance to similar campaigns employed against democracies in Europe and Eurasia.”
Russia has vehemently denied any links to cyberattacks tied to various WikiLeak email revelations. “WikiLeaks’s continued provocations against the United States’ Democratic Party have likely led the Ecuadorian Embassy to restrict Assange’s Internet access,” wrote Gray in his Election Day cybersecurity forecast.
In his report, Gray points out that the FBI has confirmed that malicious actors have been scanning and probing state voter databases for vulnerabilities stretched across 9,000 separate state and local jurisdictions. “Though the actors were operating on servers hosted by a Russian company, those attacks are not, for the moment, being attributed to an actual Russian state-sponsored campaign,” he wrote.
In response to the potential of cyberattacks, the FBI has asked state election systems to reinforce security protections. Gray, paraphrasing the FBI, said:
“Due to the decentralized nature of the voting system and state and local protections, it would be difficult for a state actor to alter ballot counts or election results… This environment is a formidable challenge to any actor — nation-state or not — who seeks to substantially influence or alter the outcome of an election. Doing so would require mastering a large number of these disparate cyber environments and finding a multitude of ways to manipulate them. An operation of this size would require vast resources over a multi-year period — an operation that would likely be detected and countered before it could come to fruition.”
Nevertheless, U.S. adversaries wishing to sway election results, Gray said, will find more success via an organized disinformation campaign. “This logic also seems to be echoed in the latest Guccifer 2.0 message posted on November 4, which alleges that U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) ‘software is of poor quality, with many holes and vulnerabilities,’” Gray wrote.
Part of Guccifer 2.0’s message included allegations of potential electoral fraud and a warning that “Democrats may rig the elections.”
“The resilience in our election system currently rests within the plurality and structure of the current systems, but as information technology continues to connect more devices to the Internet, this may not always be true for future elections,” Gray concluded.