U.S. voting systems appear to be safe and secure ahead of next month’s midterm elections, according to senior U.S. officials who warn the more pressing danger could be efforts by countries like Russia and China to convince Americans otherwise.
Just as in past elections, multiple state and nonstate actors are constantly reaching out through cyberspace to scan U.S. networks, looking for vulnerabilities that could allow them to meddle with the voting process.
But as of now, officials say, would-be election meddlers appear to be stymied.
“The FBI is not aware of any adversary cyber campaigns specifically targeting U.S. elections,” a senior official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation told reporters Monday, echoing recent assessments by other top U.S. cyber officials.
The FBI official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the bureau in order to discuss sensitive information, cautioned, however, that there is — and has been — a concerted effort by multiple U.S. adversaries to seize on lingering doubts about the election system itself.
“In particular, we are concerned malicious cyber actors could seek to spread or amplify false or exaggerated claims of compromise to election infrastructure,” the official said.
Russia, China and Iran “will take advantage of sort of election integrity narratives that come up in the U.S. ecosystem,” said a second senior FBI official. "We've seen that already, specifically from Russia."
In one possible example, the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) Monday called out a series of tweets by a journalist working for Russian-state media suggesting U.S. voting machines are prone to hacking and other forms of manipulation.
“Her tweets aimed to provide legitimacy for the Russian-run referendum to annex occupied regions in Ukraine, while also delegitimizing U.S. democratic processes,” said EIP, which bills itself as a nonpartisan coalition of researchers, government officials and social media platforms.
“This narrative was actively translated and spread into multiple languages beyond English, including Japanese, Italian and Spanish,” according to EIP, which declined to share additional information so as not to draw more attention to the false claims.
Requests by VOA to the Russian and Chinese embassies and the Iranian Mission to the U.N. for comment on the FBI’s warning were not immediately answered.
Russia’s efforts to spread misinformation through its state-run media outlets, like RT and Sputnik, are not new. Nor is the Kremlin’s effort to amplify divisive narratives generated by U.S. citizens about the security of U.S. elections.
Still, the FBI warns those campaigns have grown and matured since Americans last went to the polls.
“They’re sort of expanding the ecosystem that they are using to try and identify and recruit both witting and unwitting proxy organizations, not just in the U.S. but globally,” the second senior FBI official said.
“From their perspective, I think we can infer that they think this has been relatively successful because it’s a toolkit they're trying to continue to use,” the official added.
China also has become more aggressive in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. election, when U.S. intelligence officials concluded Beijing ultimately decided not to engage in election meddling.
This past March, the U.S. Justice Department charged a member of China’s Ministry of State Security with hiring a private investigator to disrupt the campaign of a former dissident and naturalized U.S. citizen who had announced his intentions to run for Congress.
The FBI called it a “significant shift.”
"There are a subset of [U.S.] candidates that hit both the threshold that really frustrates China regarding dissident perspectives and Beijing policy perspectives," the senior FBI official said.
“They may be looking to pull a broader page out of the Russian playbook … do things like identify narratives that will exacerbate divisions,” the official added.
As for Iran, senior FBI officials say it remains a danger, noting Tehran’s willingness to meddle in the 2020 election, when it hacked a voter registration database and sought to use the information to intimidate voters.
At the time, Iran’s foreign ministry rejected the U.S. accusations as “baseless.”
Officials have not observed Iran copying Russia and seizing upon U.S. narratives to stoke divisions. But a growing number of officials from a variety of agencies have voiced concern about what a bolder Iran may be willing to try.
“Iran is probably top of mind for me because they have been so active,” Kim Wyman, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) senior election security adviser, said earlier this month.
As for what Iran may do in the coming weeks, Wyman pointed to their efforts in 2020.
“We anticipate they may try the same things,” she said.
Officials with both the FBI and other U.S. government agencies said while they are confident Russia, China, Iran or other adversaries will not be able to manipulate U.S. voting systems to change the outcome of a particular race, they are not in position to assess whether the influence operations will be successful in changing the perceptions of U.S. voters.
Some experts and former officials, though, warn that the impact foreign influence campaigns have on the hearts and minds of U.S. voters should not be ignored.
“Meddling with elections is serious,” said Connie Uthoff, associate director of the George Washington University Cybersecurity Strategy and Information Management program.
“Disinformation can be used to divide a populace, sow discord, and incite violence,” she told VOA via email.
“When there's enough worries about the legitimacy of something, we can have horrific instances, such as the January 6 storming of the Capitol,” Glenn Gerstell, a former general counsel for the U.S. National Security Agency, told VOA. “It wasn't directly attributable to foreign disinformation, although there are certainly some strong suggestions that foreign disinformation played a role in amplifying domestic misinformation and disinformation.”
FBI officials speaking Monday said there is no evidence so far to suggest any adversaries are specifically trying to incite violence in connection with the upcoming U.S. election in November.
But there are ongoing concerns about the safety of U.S. election workers.
The FBI officials said since June 2021, the bureau has gotten more than 1,000 reports of threats against election workers. Of those, 11% warranted further investigation, leading to four arrests.
However, the officials said, it is noteworthy that almost 60% of the reported threats came from seven states – Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin. All seven states either ran audits or saw considerable debate about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
As for ongoing threats, officials with the FBI and CISA have said they are taking them seriously.
CISA has said it has also been working with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies about making sure there is adequate security for election workers, polling places and other election-related infrastructure.