Foreign hackers threatening US elections again

By Marc Arcas

San Francisco, Oct 23 (efe-epa).- With just a little more than a week to go before the US presidential election, security agencies and tech firms are on high alert for potential cyber-attacks by foreign hackers and fears abound that there will be a repetition of what occurred during the 2016 vote.

In the balloting four years ago, Russian info-pirates – camouflaging their activities, of course – managed to interfere in the US campaign debate to influence the electoral result, an operation that Democrats say helped President Donald Trump stage a stunning upset and win the vote, although he had been behind in the voter surveys right up to Election Day.

This year, and according to the White House on Wednesday, Iran is trying to influence matters in the opposition direction – that is, harming Trump’s chances – by sending e-mails to Democratic voters posing as the ultrarightist Proud Boys and threatening to “come for them” if they don’t vote Republican.

National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe said that both Iran and Russia had managed to obtain US voter information, although for the moment there is only proof that Tehran has used it to try and influence public opinion.

Meanwhile, both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have warned that hackers in Russia, China and Iran are looking for ways to sow chaos, delegitimize the democratic process and deepen the social divisions in the US.

“China, Russia, and Iran may seek to use cyber capabilities to compromise or disrupt critical infrastructure used to support the 2020 elections and may also use influence measures in an attempt to sway the preferences and perceptions of U.S. voters,” said the DHS in a report published on Oct. 6.

The US government placed special emphasis on Moscow, warning that the “main objective” of the Kremlin is to increase its relative worldwide influence by weakening the US both inside and outside its borders by sowing discord and contributing to the formation of US public opinion.

Apart from the alerts, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) have spent months working to identify and take action against different networks originating abroad that are pursuing those goals.

Besides the security agencies, US tech firms are playing a crucial role in fighting against cyber-threats, as their activities in recent months bear witness, with Microsoft in the vanguard in mid-October busting a massive network to hijack data or install “ransomware” on US computers.

The Windows operating system company managed to eliminate the Trickbot network, whereby professional hackers were selling their services to criminals and foreign countries for launching ransomware, over the past four years infecting more than a million computers all over the world.

Microsoft explained that these types of attacks are one of the biggest threats to the electoral process, given that they can be used to infect computers on which voter lists are stored or the ones that report election results, stealing data and creating a chaotic situation.

Two companies in particular have been blamed for the spread of disinformation and foreign meddling in 2016 – Twitter and, in particular, Facebook – which this time around have decided to act much more aggressively to avoid a repeat of the mistakes of four years ago.

Along those lines, both firms have been periodically reporting for months their operations to break up networks originating outside the US – especially in Russia and Iran – that pose as Americans with an eye toward spreading misinformation to US voters.

One of the most significant cases in recent weeks was Facebook’s elimination of a relatively small group of 13 accounts and two Web pages originating in Russia that were used to recruit US journalists to write stories from a progressive point of view with the goal of influencing public opinion in the US.

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