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The Cybersecurity 202: NSA and Cyber Command chief pledges muscular defense of November election

with Tonya Riley

The country's lead military and intelligence cybersecurity agencies are preparing for a full-scale battle to protect the November election from Russia and other adversaries. 

Cybercom is sending troops abroad to help search for malicious software on U.S. allies’ government computer networks, gathering data about Russian hacker tactics before they’re deployed against U.S. election targets, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who leads both U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. The article was co-authored by Cybercom senior adviser Michael Sulmeyer. 

In one particular such “hunt forward” mission, military hackers visited the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, which has been targeted by Russian-linked hackers. “Working side by side with Montenegrin partners, the team saw an opportunity to improve American cyber defenses ahead of the 2020 election,” the pair write. 

The preparation also includes sharing reams of information with the Department of Homeland Security to help harden election systems against hacking and with the FBI to help shut down disinformation operations. 

The article offers a rare inside look at how the notoriously secretive agencies are preparing for the most closely watched election in history from a cybersecurity perspective. It also describes how military hackers have increasingly gone on offense to knock back threats from Russia and elsewhere since Cybercom was created a decade ago.  

And it carries an unspoken promise: Military and intelligence officials are far better prepared and will punch back far harder against election interference this time than in 2016, when Russian efforts upended Hillary Clinton’s campaign and severely damaged public faith in the electoral process.

This says to the political classes and the policy classes, ‘We know this mission and we’re focused on it,’ ” Robert Chesney, a former Justice Department official and University of Texas law professor, told me. 

Former intelligence leaders have generally acknowledged the government was too slow to push back in 2016. 

Nakasone’s predecessor Adm. Mike Rogers joined that group yesterday when he said in a NPR interview that U.S. officials underestimated how broadly Russia intended to interfere in the election 

While we had some level of knowledge in the summer of 2016, I don't think we fully appreciated the level of effort,” Rogers said.

In particular, intelligence leaders underestimated the effect that Russia’s social media manipulation could have on voters, said Rogers, who led NSA and Cybercom until May 2018 and has not spoken extensively about election security efforts since leaving the post. 

“I wish we had taken more direct, more public action sooner as opposed to doing so after the election itself,” he said. 

The government has surged its election security work since then and the 2018 midterms were free of any major disruptions. 

Nakasone and Sulmeyer's article describes deploying troops to several unnamed countries in advance of the midterm elections, which helped thwart “a concerted effort” to undermine the contests. 

“Together with its partners, Cyber Command is doing all of this and more for the 2020 elections,” they write.

The comments won quick praise from some agency defenders. Here's Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), former top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, whose district includes NSA's home at Fort Meade, Md. 

The midterm efforts also included an offensive Cybercom effort that temporarily shut down a major Russian troll factory, as President Trump recently confirmed

But officials have expressed concern Russia may be saving its most serious efforts for the presidential contest. DHS's top cybersecurity official Chris Krebs warned in 2018, for instance, that the midterms may be merely a “warm up” game for the general election. 

Intelligence agencies are already warning about efforts to interfere in the contest that is just three months away. 

Most recently, intelligence agencies assessed that Russia is using “a range of measures” to interfere in the election aimed at hurting Democratic nominee Joe Biden. China, meanwhile, prefers Biden and is engaged in rhetoric that is critical of the Trump administration, officials have said. 

When it comes to trying to hack into actual voting systems, officials have not seen the  “level of coordinated, determined cyberactivity from adversaries” that they did in 2016, Krebs has said. But that could change significantly before Election Day. 

Partisanship around election interference itself could play into Russian efforts to convince Americans that the vote is corrupted.  

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. pointed to the most recent intelligence assessment during the first night of the Republican National convention to argue that “Beijing Biden is so weak on China that the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favors Biden.” He neglected to mention that the assessment says Russia is working against Biden and in favor of his father. 

Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi (R) continued the assault on the convention's second night, leveling a slew of accusations suggesting that Biden is corrupted by family business interests in China. 

And Trump’s regular refrain that he’ll only lose if Democrats “rig” the election is also sure to damage public confidence.

Democrats, meanwhile, have savaged Trump, saying he hasn’t done enough to combat Russian interference. They’ve also charged that a Republican Senate investigation into Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine is acting as a filter for Russian disinformation efforts — a charge the investigation’s leaders have firmly denied. 

The keys

Democrats are wary of Trump’s controversial pick to lead DHS. 

The president will nominate acting Secretary Chad Wolf as the department's permanent leader, he said in a tweet.

“I think given his past actions, he’s an awful choice,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

Wolf was installed as the interim secretary 10 months ago in a move that a government watchdog called unlawful, Nick Miroff reports. Wolf has played little visible role in the department's cybersecurity work but has been hammered by progressives for his role using federal law enforcement to counter protests in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere. He also participated in an RNC event last night swearing in new citizens at the White House that critics said violated restrictions on federal employees conducting political activity. 

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, accused Trump of using the nomination to protect the White House from legal questions around Wolf's appointment.

It has taken President Trump far too long over 500 days to nominate someone to permanently run the Department of Homeland Security, Thompson said. Since every policy decision Mr. Wolf made since November may be challenged because he lacked proper authority, this is also an attempt to limit the Administration’s exposure to legal challenges. ”

Homeland Security Committee Republicans praised Wolf:

Canada hasn’t formally banned Huawei — but that’s what’s happening.

By continually delaying a decision on whether to ban Huawei from Canadian 5G networks, officials there are effectively putting companies in a position where they can’t risk contracting with the Chinese telecom, Reuters's David Ljunggren reports.

The inaction allows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to stay on the good side of U.S. officials, who have long urged such a ban, without significantly offending China, Ljunggren reports. 

So far two of the country's biggest telecom providers have ditched Huawei for Sweden's Ericsson and Finland's Nokia for their 5G buildouts.

Canada is the last of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership to make a decision about Huawei. The partnership also includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Part of Canada's hesitation is a fear of further upsetting diplomatic relations with China, David reports. China retaliated against Canada's arrest of one of a Huawei executive by arresting two Canadian citizens on spying charges.

“They’ve done the political calculus and said, ‘The best thing for us is to do nothing, and if we do nothing we don’t upset the Chinese, we don’t upset the Americans’,” said a person familiar with what government officials are saying.

Human rights activists are trying to block the export of controversial surveillance technology to Hong Kong. 

The software from the Israeli firm Cellebrite has already been used to break into the phones of 4,000 Hong Kong citizens including politicians and activists as China ramps up its control of the region, Patrick Howell O'Neill at MIT Technology Review reports.

Israeli human rights activists hope their petition to Israel's minister of defense puts legal and political pressure on Cellebrite to stop exports to the Hong Kong government. The group alleges Cellebrite never got an export license for the sale.

Cellebrite's controversial technology is used by law enforcement around the world, including in the United States. The company claims to be able to unlock any iPhone, making it a valuable tool for law enforcement.

States should allow election officials to begin processing ballots at least seven days before the election, a new report recommends. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections, which comprises state and local election officials from across the country, also recommends that officials:

  • Remove excessive absentee ballot verification measures, such as requiring witnesses or a notary, to help make absentee voting accessible to all voters. States should instead rely on signature verification—a process already used by thirty-one states.
  • Rely on automated processes for unofficial results reporting to reduce the likelihood of human error.
  • Communicate any changes to results reporting processes—especially those relating to how potential errors will be addressed—to the public as soon as possible.
  • Provide ballot tracking tools for voters to increase voter confidence and transparency.

More cybersecurity news:

New Zealand's stock exchange hit by second cyber attack (Reuters)

Colleges Weigh Transparency Versus Privacy When It Comes to Covid-19 Data (Wall Street Journal)

Thailand vows to step up action vs ‘illegal’ online sites (Associated Press)


  • The Republican Convention will take place through Thursday.

Secure log off

First Lady Melania Trump had a message about cyber-bullying at last night's convention: