Our Take

The next generation of Internet technologies will have an outsized impact on the geopolitical contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Democracies will need to take a multilateral, values-based approach to the development and use of these technologies in order to outcompete the authoritarian divide-and-conquer strategy, Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman writes in the most comprehensive report to date of Beijing’s play for 5G, 6G, and the applications and governance standards to follow.

Americans should be prepared for foreign actors to take some of their most significant actions in the days and weeks after Election Day—when the country may actually be most vulnerable, Director Laura Rosenberger writes in Foreign Affairs.

Fighting over which candidate Iran wants to boost or hurt, rather than focusing on how to respond in a unified way to the threat of Iranian interference, will only play into Tehran’s hands, Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai writes in The Washington Post.

Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine interviews the Democracy Fund’s Tammy Patrick about the security and resiliency of the U.S. democratic system, how voting is going so far as millions vote early and by mail, and what we can expect over the next week leading up to—and after—Election Day on GMF’s “Out of Order.”

Nation-state influence will be an important and enduring feature of near-term geopolitical competition, Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman and Director Laura Rosenberger argue in Lawfare.

Hamilton 2.0 Analysis

Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media seized on the final U.S. presidential debate to criticize the current state of U.S. democracy. Russian state media provided the most extensive coverage of the debate; the majority of which criticized Biden’s remarks and performance. Mentions of Russian interference made during the debate elicited the usual claims of “Russiagate” and “Russophobia.” Following the U.S. announcement that Iran and Russia had both obtained U.S. voter information ahead of the 2020 election, Russian state media amplified Iranian officials’ denials of involvement and emphasized the Kremlin’s denial of interference. Iran also used both its government officials and state media to strike out at the United States, with Supreme Leader Khamenei saying that Americans “have disgraced themselves in the world and their debates.” Chinese state media criticized the fact that foreign interference was a topic during the presidential debate; although, Xinhua’s coverage of the topic focused exclusively on allegations of Russian and Iranian interference.

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News and Commentary

Russian-backed hackers target state and local networks that could impact U.S. voting infrastructure: On October 22, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced that a Russian-state backed hacking group—often referred to as “Energetic Bear”—was responsible for dozens of breaches into a wide variety of targets, including state and local networks that could give the hackers broader access to U.S. voting infrastructure. U.S. intelligence agencies identified the hacking effort while infiltrating Russian networks to gather details on Moscow’s plans to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, which officials said could include operations intended to support President Trump, potentially by amplifying disputes over election results. According to the FBI and CISA, the hacking group stole data from at least two servers; although, there has been no evidence that the “integrity of elections data has been compromised.” Russian-backed hackers similarly penetrated computer networks in 2016 without changing vote tallies or voter registration information, which are steps experts and officials have repeatedly said would be difficult for hackers to accomplish. U.S. officials, however, warned that the hackers could use their access to local computer systems to deface websites or take other measures as part of a “perception hacking” effort to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the election by creating the impression that they could have influenced vote tallies. ASD Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt and Research Assistant Amber Frankland have shown that Russia has previously targeted select U.S. election systems with cyberattacks to lay the groundwork for disinformation campaigns designed to delegitimize the election’s outcome. (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, The New York Times, Politico, The Associated Press, ASD)

U.S. officials expose Iranian election interference efforts: On October 21, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray called a joint news conference to warn the public that Iran and Russia are actively interfering in the 2020 U.S. election. The briefing detailed Iran’s responsibility for an information operation wherein Democrats in several states, including Florida and Alaska, received emails falsely claiming to be from the far right group “Proud Boys” demanding that they vote for President Trump. The U.S. government and private tech company analysts were able to quickly attribute the emails to Iran because of mistakes in a video accompanying some of the emails. During the conference, Ratcliffe said that Iran’s goals were to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee acting chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) and vice chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) responded to the intelligence assessment by issuing a joint statement urging Americans to be “skeptical of sensationalist, last-minute claims about election infrastructure.” On October 22, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Iranian organizations, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for allegedly trying to influence the U.S. election through disinformation campaigns. In response to the announcement, ASD Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai argued that Iran’s goal is not to influence a particular election but “to exploit divisions in American society and to undermine our democratic institutions and processes.” Tabatabai recently published a detailed report outlining Iran’s efforts over the last decade to enhance its cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and malign finance operations. (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The New York Times, Reuters, The Hill, Cyberscoop, ASD)

In Case You Missed It

• The Treasury Department sanctioned a Russian government research institution connected to the dangerous Triton malware, which was designed to target industrial safety systems.

• The European Union and United Kingdom issued asset freezes and travel bans against two Russian intelligence officers for their involvement in a 2015 cyberattack on the German parliament.

• The State Department designated six additional Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions,” labeling them state-controlled propaganda outlets.

• Twitter launched a feature that places warnings of potential election-related misinformation at the top of users’ feeds.

• Microsoft announced it had dismantled 94 percent of a massive Russian criminal botnet that could have indirectly affected U.S. election infrastructure.

• The National Security Agency warned that Chinese-backed hackers were targeting computer networks across the Department of Defense.

• Italy blocked a deal that would have allowed Chinese telecoms company Huawei to provide equipment for the country’s 5G core network.

• President Trump signed legislation making it a federal crime to target federal voting systems with cyberattacks.

• Facebook has removed two small disinformation networks targeting audiences in the United States, including at least one account that was spreading election-related disinformation.

ASD in the News

U.S. government concludes Iran was behind threatening emails sent to Democrats, The Washington Post. Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai

In election hacking, perception hacking may be as good as the real thing, AFP. Comments from Head of Policy and Research Jessica Brandt

What does the US election mean for Europe?, Al Jazeera. Comments from Senior Fellow Kristine Berzina

Foreign nations actively pushing disinformation on social media ahead of 2020 election, WPTV. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Security Gaps Persist, Report Warns, After U.S. Blames Iran In Election Scheme, NPR. Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai

Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference, The Hill. Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai

DNI Ratcliffe said Iran aimed to hurt Trump with faked Proud Boy emails. Democrats are skeptical, The Washington Post. Comments from Middle East Fellow Ariane Tabatabai

The most successful covert operation since the Trojan Horse … and it wasn’t so covert, “Deep State Radio.” Interview with Director Laura Rosenberger

Senate Republicans subpoena Facebook, Twitter over content moderation, Newsy. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Forget Russia and Iran. The biggest threat to the election could be the US itself, SBS News. Comments from Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow Bret Schafer

Growing evidence says Russia poses major threat to 2020 election, while US government focuses on Iran, KCRW. Interview with Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

China’s influence operations offer a glimpse into the future of information warfare, NBC News. Comments from Director Laura Rosenberger

Florida lawmakers call for classified briefing on Iran, Russia election interference, Spectrum News. Comments from Head of External Affairs Rachael Dean Wilson

Foreign election interference, “In Lieu of Fun.” Interview with Director Laura Rosenberger

Presidential debate watch party, Tennessee Council on World Affairs and The Tennessean. Virtual event with Head of External Affairs Rachael Dean Wilson

US Polls: An election that hackers, Russia trying hard to rig, Telangana Today. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Safeguards in place to protect voters as USA election draws near, The Malta Independent. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

A topical look at the U.S. election security, Liberian Daily Observer. Comments from Elections Integrity Fellow David Levine

Russian disinformation during coronacrisis and beyond, Euractiv Poland. Virtual event with Fellow and Program Manager Nad’a Kovalčíková

The role of cryptocurrency in election interference, CNAS. Virtual event with Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph

Quote of the Week

“Republicans and Democrats are united when we say that continued attempts to sow dissent, cast doubt on election results, or disrupt our election systems and infrastructure will necessitate a severe response.”

  •  Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote in a joint statement.
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The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.