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Russia, China plan to adjust their tactics to hack, influence 2020 elections

Iran, North Korea, non-state “hacktivists” also pose threats

A woman with her daughter casts her vote at Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Russia, China and other adversaries who see U.S. elections as a key target for cyberattacks and influence operations are evaluating defensive measures used against their previous attempts to adjust future tactics, a top intelligence official said Tuesday.

“I don’t underestimate any of the adversaries that are looking at the U.S. elections,” Shelby Pierson, election threats executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told CQ Roll Call in a brief interview after an election security event in Washington. “It’s undoubtedly part of their plan to learn what works and what doesn’t.”

Russia is not the only adversary targeting U.S. elections, Pierson said earlier, speaking at an election security summit hosted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the body that is funneling federal monies to states for election security. “It’s more diverse.” China, Iran, North Korea, non-state “hacktivists” are among those that pose threats and have the capabilities and motives to target the United States, she said.

“Threats going into 2020 are more sophisticated,” she said. Adversaries’ actions are not likely to be limited to cyberattacks but will include malign influence operations targeting candidates, political parties, campaigns, states and county election infrastructure, she said.

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Pierson’s office was created in the aftermath of the 2016 election when Russian intelligence services not only hacked the Democratic National Committee but also mounted social media influence campaigns to mislead American voters. Her office works with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to alert them about threats and briefs state and local officials on potential impacts to their election systems.

Since the 2016 elections, the U.S. intelligence community, including the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, have been granted expanded powers to hit back at adversaries. Pierson said the agencies have had success with such pushback during the 2018 mid-term elections, and “we would love to engage in operations that stops this activity” before they reach the U.S. shores.

Asked about reports that hackers from Russian intelligence services had broken into Ukraine’s energy company Burisma, which is at the heart of the impeachment case against President Donald Trump, Pierson declined to confirm the news although she said the U.S. was tracking the reports.

The U.S. intelligence community is closely tracking the activities of Russia’s main intelligence directorate known by its initials as GRU, as well as other adversaries as Election Day approaches.

U.S. agencies have a three-step plan to deter Russia and other adversaries from undermining the upcoming and future elections, she told MSNBC in an interview on the sidelines of the conference. U.S. intelligence agencies will: expose foreign government plans, calling that the “best disinfectant;” educate the American public about threats so they can be aware of the dangers; and let adversaries know that their actions will not be tolerated, she said.

Pierson also told MSNBC that the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that voting machines equipped with modem-enabled tabulators used to send unofficial vote tallies online on Election Day are vulnerable to attacks.

Executives of the top three voting machine makers told Congress last week that many of their models were equipped with such a feature.

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