Experts agree this year’s election is a big target for hackers, disinformation and foreign interference

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Voters cast their ballots at Ogden's Union Station during Utah's Super Tuesday primary, Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

As the 2020 election nears, the need to strengthen cybersecurity and dispel misinformation grows.

“You have to assume you will be targeted by disinformation and misinformation,” said Adam Clayton Powell III, executive director of the Election Cybersecurity Initiative. “Elections and campaigns are too easy of a target for adversaries both foreign and domestic.”

Powell and Clifford Neuman, director of USC’s Center for Computer Systems Security, outlined during an online conference Tuesday how hackers and foreign adversaries can not only influence elections through infiltrating the voting system, but also through spreading false information.

Neuman mentioned that the first, but rarest, way an election can be compromised is through actual manipulation of the vote count on Election Day. Utah’s transition to mail-in voting not only makes it well-equipped to handle voting in a COVID-19 world, it also makes it difficult for hackers to skew an election through an electronic voting apparatus.

But the reach of a hacker extends beyond the ballot box.

Powell reported that China, Russia and Iran have already begun to spread false reports online, and foreign countries are now echoing each other’s messages by citing another country’s fake reports as a source.

Russia, according to Powell, has already started hiring Americans to open social media accounts used to to amplify misinformation in a process called “franchising.” It is also enlisting the help of some African countries to post false information.

“We know there’s going to be a huge flood of disinformation this election cycle,” Powell continued. “We’ve seen it in previous cycles, and now it’s just multiplying.”

Jennifer Napier-Pearce, editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, was at the event to ask questions of local leaders, including Matt Waldrip, chief of staff to Sen. Mitt Romney. Waldrip stressed that defending the integrity of the voting system is a high concern on Capitol Hill.

Electoral integrity “is talked about in the halls of Congress,” Waldrip said. “Four hundred million dollars of the CARES Act was designated to election security, so there are some efforts being made, but we need to keep up with those efforts.”

Politicians are working to ensure that falsehoods and the uncertainty of COVID-19 do not slow down or taint the election, he said.

“I have enough faith in our country that the pandemic will not affect our elections,” Waldrip said. “I do not subscribe to the theories that this election will be hampered or have an asterisk next to it. We’re going to figure this out.”

The duty of limiting unverified claims and thus promoting a fair election also falls to individual citizens, especially when it comes to social media, Neuman said, encouraging everyone to share posts responsibly because untrue messages can be easily amplified by unwary users.