Keeping ‘22 elections safe is a constant battle for N.C. against adversaries

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A prize up to $10 million — no, that’s not lottery winnings. You can hit the jackpot by submitting a tip to expose foreign influence in U.S. elections.

The money posted by the U.S. Dept. of State is part of a new Rewards for Justice program to also combat malicious cyber activities against the U.S., among other threats.

News about the reward came from Marie Harf, a former Department of State official who is now an international elections analyst for the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative.

Harf joined several speakers, including two state officials — the chairperson of the North Carolina State Board of Elections and a 10th District Republican congressman — for a multistate webinar on election integrity on Aug. 18.

It was a virtual return visit for Adam Clayton Powell III, executive director of the nonpartisan cybersecurity initiative, organized by the University of Southern California and funded with generous support from Google.

Nearly 6,000 people in all 50 states have attended USC’s workshops in 2020 and 2021 for candidates, campaign aides, political parties, academics and state and local election workers. The North Carolina workshop also invited representatives from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

“Many who attend our workshops report that they have changed to stronger passwords, have begun using multi-factor authentication and have been more careful to avoid social engineering attacks,” he said.

Phishing scams, such as email and text messages to create urgency, curiosity or fear, are a popular social engineering attack to gain access to your personal or financial data.

Powell noted that this is the busiest time of year for election officials, headed now for the Nov. 8 general election. Oct. 14 is the deadline for voter registration, though same-day registration is available for one-stop, in-person early voting, which begins Oct. 20 and ends at 3 p.m. Nov. 5.

“It’s like Santa Claus,” Powell said, quoting an election official, who observed that while voters and journalists tend to focus on one date, election workers, like Santa’s elves, are especially busy in the months leading up to Election Day.

Among the contests on the North Carolina ballot are 14 U.S. House seats, several posts in the General Assembly and on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, as well as races for sheriff, county commissioners, local judges and prosecutors.

The most closely watched race nationally is for the U.S. Senate between U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican representing the newly drawn 13th District, and his Democratic challenger, Cheri Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“Our voting equipment is never connected to a network of any kind, eliminating the possibility of cyber interference in the vote count,” said Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, who is entrusted with protecting the vote of 7.3 million citizens. “If something nefarious were to occur, we would detect it and be prepared to respond.”

Absentee ballots must be requested by Nov. 1 and delivered by Nov. 8. In 2020, a flood of lawsuits was filed over extending the deadline to receive mail-in ballots and modifying requirements for postmarking and third-party collection of them.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, representing the 10th District, is the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee. He sees cybersecurity threats as not only endangering elections but also America’s financial infrastructure, particularly through ransomware.

“These threats are quite real and can cause serious consequences,” said McHenry, who has proposed legislation to counter the threats

The USC workshop outlined a four-part “roadmap” used by adversaries, particularly from Russia, China and Iran, to disrupt elections: manipulate voters, discourage or prevent voting, manipulate vote totals and create distrust of the outcome.

That last threat focused on disruption from misinformation and disinformation, particularly through social media.

A 2021 study by the Pew Research Center showed the percentage of people who regularly get news that way: Twitter (55%), Facebook (47%), YouTube (30%), TikTok (29%) and Instagram (27%).

Two years earlier, a study by the Park Advisors consulting group, “Weapons of Mass Distraction: Foreign State-Sponsored Disinformation in the Digital Age,” confirmed a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes.”

The study found: “On average a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story. This is true of false stories about any topic, but stories about politics are most likely to go viral.”

Stop before you share anything that makes you angry or outraged, as those are tell-tale signs of disinformation, said Sarah Mojarad, a lecturer at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

And be careful what you salute, Harf said. She showed a sponsored Facebook page, titled “Being Patriotic,” which posted a quote on patriotism from Calvin Coolidge and a tribute to American soldiers, among many other messages.

It was shut down after its payment method — Russian rubles — drew suspicion. The page came from a Russian disinformation playbook to sow division in American politics, Harf said.

“Most crises are unlikely but predictable,” said Dave Quast, an expert on crisis responses for candidates, campaigns and corporations. He listed cybersecurity breaches, rumors and health issues among many examples.

“Get bad news out fast with your viewpoint,” Quast said. “There’s only one chance to get the initial response right.”

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