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Russia Poses Greater Election Threat Than Iran, Many U.S. Officials Say

  • October 22, 2020

Officials briefed on the intelligence said that Mr. Ratcliffe had accurately summarized the preliminary conclusion about Iran. But Tehran’s hackers may have accomplished that mission simply by assembling public information and then routing the threatening emails through Saudi Arabia, Estonia and other countries to hide their tracks. One official compared the Iranian action as single A baseball, while the Russians are major leaguers.

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Nonetheless, both the Iranian and the Russian activity could pave the way for “perception hacks,” which are intended to leave the impression that foreign powers have greater access to the voting system than they really do. Federal officials have warned for months that small breaches could be exaggerated to prompt inaccurate charges of widespread voter fraud.

Officials say Russia’s ability to change vote tallies nationwide is limited.

A hacking group believed to be operating at the behest of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the F.S.B. — the successor agency to the Soviet-era K.G.B. — has infiltrated multiple state and local computer networks in recent weeks, according to officials and researchers. The group, known to private researchers as Energetic Bear or Dragonfly, has hacked into American nuclear, water and power plants and airports before. While it has stopped short of shutting them down, the group is considered to be among Russia’s most formidable.

The Russian hackers were able to get inside some election administrators’ systems and had access to voting information. What alarmed officials was the targets, the timing — the attacks began two months ago — and the adversary, which is known for burrowing inside the supply chain of critical infrastructure that Russia may want to take down in the future. The officials fear that Russia could change, delete or freeze voter data, making it harder for voters to cast ballots, invalidating mail-in ballots or creating enough uncertainty to undermine election results.

“It’s reasonable to assume any attempt at the election systems could be for the same purpose,” said John Hultquist, the director of threat analysis at FireEye, a security firm that has been tracking the Russian group’s foray into state and local systems. “This could be the reconnaissance for disruptive activity.”

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