How The U.S. Fended Off Serious Foreign Election Day Cyberattacks

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Foreign threats to the 2020 election looked a lot like Y2K: With high levels of alarm and preparation, the system held off foreign disinformation and cyberattacks.

Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images


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Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images

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Geoff Brown is the head of New York City Cyber Command, the city’s cyber security operation.

NYC Cyber Command


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NYC Cyber Command


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Another threat that was hobbled before Election Day was the disruption of a network of zombie computers that were controlled by Russia-linked hackers. The botnet was called ‘TrickBot,’ and it is rather famous for planting ransomware and malware on computer systems around the world. If U.S. election systems were to be compromised, intelligence officials said later, it was likely TrickBot would be part of it.

So it got special attention from the U.S. government and the private sector. In the months before the election, the U.S. military’s Cyber Command reportedly mounted an operation to temporarily disrupt it.

«So the idea is you can cut the head off the snake or you can cut all the snakes which connect to the head. And that was what the objective was. And we saw it,» Arena said. «It probably didn’t get all the snakes, but the reality is it did probably cut off a lot of those connections.»

Microsoft took its own action to support the U.S. cyber force’s efforts. It moved to disable the same botnet, arguing that the network’s ability to disrupt American computer systems used for election results and voter rolls was «one of the largest threats to the upcoming elections.»

«The fact that it was disrupted right at the same time that the elections were kicking into high gear is not a coincidence,» Solomon told NPR. «And yes, it definitely had impact.»

These actions have been publicly announced. Analysts say there were likely others that were not.

«What we’re seeing is only a small amount of what’s actually happening. So I think there’s probably a huge amount of effort happening behind the scenes,» Arena said. «People toiling in the dark, working in dark rooms without knowing that their successes are probably not going to be public.»

But success preventing foreign adversaries from interfering with the election only paints a partial picture: Domestic disinformation about the validity of the election has been widespread, even without intervention from abroad.

«I think on some level, we’re always fighting the last war. So we made significant strides on the threats we identified from 2016 around the cybersecurity of election infrastructure and the threat of foreign interference in our election,» said Lindsay Gorman, a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. «And now I think what we have to really contend with is the threat of domestic disinformation.»

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