FBI warns of cybercriminals spreading false info about 2020 election results

Bad actors could create or change websites and social media content to discredit this year's electoral process, cautions the FBI and CISA.

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Image: iStock/hywards

The 2020 presidential election promises to be a rough and divisive one. No matter which candidate wins, or appears to win, people on the other side are likely to protest and contest the results. And with so many voters getting their information from the internet and social media, the online world has become the right place for the wrong people to disseminate false information about an election.

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A new message from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warns voters of the likelihood that foreign actors and cybercriminals will try to propagate fake news about the election results to discredit the process and weaken confidence in the US political system.

In their warning, the FBI and CISA described the ways that bad actors could cause dissension about the election. They could create new websites or change existing ones to publish false details about the results. They could also use social media to share fake information.

Over the past several years, we've certainly seen how internet sites and social media pages can be manipulated and distorted to make people believe that the information they find is accurate and true. This year, however, presents new challenges.

The political arena is already ripe with strife and conflict, elements that can be easily exploited by the wrong people to create further discord and friction.

Further, the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have thrown this year's election process into uncharted territory. As more people use mail-in ballots, the total number of votes in the presidential election may not be counted or known for some time. In fact, state and local officials may need several days or weeks to tally up the final results.

While the election results remain in limbo, bad actors could take that time to deploy disinformation about reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks aimed at the election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other issues designed to convince voters of the illegitimacy of the entire election and the results.

The two agencies hold specific roles and responsibilities regarding the election process. The FBI investigates malicious foreign influence operations and malicious cyber activity targeting the election infrastructure and other US democratic institutions. CISA is responsible for protecting America's critical infrastructure from physical and cyber threats.

In their warning, the agencies did promise that if bad actors were able to change an election-related website, the underlying data and internal systems would not be compromised, though they didn't explain how that would be guaranteed.

"It's quite common for disinformation campaigns to pop up, especially when there is an election of major importance," said Brandon Hoffman, chief information security officer at security provider Netenrich. "This is not just related to elections and political movements in America, but globally as the adversaries see opportunities to further their agenda. The reason these attacks persist in different variations is simply because they are effective."

Hoffman sees more advanced campaigns surfacing as the election nears.

"Moving forward, we will continue to see more advanced campaigns aimed at the 2020 elections and techniques that leverage automation to build more accounts and pages automatically," Hoffman said. "These pages will be used for propaganda or ideology dissemination. We will almost certainly see an attack of any voting equipment used and any mobile apps or websites that have anything to do with campaigns or hosting voter or voting information databases."

To help voters separate fake news from legitimate information on the election process and results, the FBI and CISA offer the following recommendations:

  1. Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials. Verify who produced the content and consider their intent.
  2. Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results. Consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.
  3. For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials.
  4. Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting—to the FBI.
  5. 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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By Lance Whitney

Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.