DHS Secretary: US Election Infrastructure Safe for Now

When U.S. voters go to the polls Nov. 6 to cast their ballots in the midterm elections, they can be confident everything will work as it should, at least for now, the secretary of homeland security said Tuesday.

Kirstjen Nielsen, speaking at The Washington Post’s 2018 Cybersecurity Summit, said the country’s election infrastructure, computer systems, networks and other hardware required to record the vote were all safe.

“We currently have no indication that a foreign advisory intends to disrupt our election infrastructure,” Nielsen said.

But she added that the Department of Homeland Security, its partners in the U.S. intelligence community, and state and local governments were taking nothing for granted.

“We’re constantly on alert,” Nielsen said. “We know they have the capability and we know they have the will.”

DHS has been working with officials in all 50 states to make sure election-related systems are protected against intrusions and potential compromises from countries like Russia, though federal officials have also expressed concerns about possible attacks from China, Iran and North Korea.

Two years ago, in the months leading up the U.S. presidential election, Russian hackers targeted election systems in 21 U.S. states, penetrating some of them while scanning others. But despite the intrusion, U.S. intelligence officials concluded the Russian cyber efforts did not physically change any votes.

U.S. officials have said they have yet to see the same type of frenzied activity this year that they saw in 2016, but that they remain concerned about attacks against the country’s election infrastructure and about disinformation campaigns, some of which involve gathering information from specific candidates, campaigns or political organizations.

According to both government officials and private technology firms, a growing number of U.S. political candidates and campaigns have come under increasingly sophisticated attacks.

“We absolutely see attempts to scan systems to spear-phish,” Nielsen said. “We haven’t seen any major compromises as of yet, but again it’s that preparatory work that should raise everybody’s shield.”

In the meantime, U.S. intelligence and security officials are warning that Russia continues to run information operations to try to change the perceptions and opinions of U.S. voters.

“The objective here is not necessarily to come up with a particular party but to generate suspicion, lack of trust and disorder in the American electorate,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told VOA’s Russian service.

“I fully expect we’re going to see more of that, as well as social media stories generated again to create dissension and distrust,” Chertoff said.

Experts likewise worry about China’s information campaigns, though many say that for now, Beijing’s aims appear to be different.

“They’re more focused on making sure there’s a positive portrayal of China and to downplay criticism of China,” said James Mulvenon, vice president of Defense Group Inc.’s Intelligence Division.

VOA’s Russian service contributed to this report.

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