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Cybersecurity threats to elections are increasing: Experts

"These attacks are happening all the time, even though we can't see many of them," said international elections analyst Marie Harf.

HARTFORD, Conn. — With election season in full swing, security is a top priority for the United States.

Experts said cyber attacks are a major concern now more than ever and Connecticut representatives are joining the conversation. 

RELATED: Turn Out Tuesday: What you need to know before Connecticut's primary day

With the general election less than three months away, officials are focusing on three main areas: cybersecurity, physical threats and disinformation.

“These attacks are happening all the time, even though we can't see many of them,” Marie Harf, international elections analyst for the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative.

“The threats that we saw, going back to 2016, really haven't gone away,” added senior election security lead with the U.S. Department Of Homeland Security, Kim Wyman.

Wyman said cybersecurity threats have actually increased in recent years, like an Iranian attempt to hack U.S. voter registration systems in 2016.

She said similar activities from Iran and China were seen in 2018 and 2020, but there’s also been an uptick in ransomware.

“It's hitting county governments, local governments, and certainly has a potential for election offices,” Wyman said.

There’s a tangible threat to election offices, too, like attacks on polling places and even election officials or voters themselves.

RELATED: Facing threats, some election workers weigh whether to stay

Experts said the biggest concern experts is disinformation.

“We are deluged right now with outside entities, state actors, Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians who either have active programs or designs on trying to influence our elections through misinformation,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Connecticut).

Experts said misinformation and disinformation are different–misinformation is false information spread without a deliberate attempt to deceive, while disinformation is intentionally designed to mislead.

These types of threats have grown in the last five years, from both foreign adversaries and domestic partners.

“We're creating fertile ground for people who would manipulate our elections by manipulating us,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Connecticut, 4th District). “Of course in the world of social media, that this has gone from an abstraction to a very clear and present danger to our democracy.”

The advent of social media has expanded these issues. Officials said nowadays, adversaries can target the outcome of an election without needing to physically manipulate vote tallies.

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“U.S. security officials are worried about what foreign governments are doing and might do around the upcoming midterm elections,” Harf continued. “We cannot give them an opening to exploit. We know they've done it in the past and they will continue to do so if given the chance.”

Experts said the best way to combat these threats is to educate and prepare for any possibility.

They also encourage local election officials to protect against phishing, ransomware and malware attacks.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released a toolkit for state and local election officials to improve the cybersecurity and resilience of their infrastructure.

Emma Wulfhorst is a political reporter for FOX61 News. She can be reached at ewulfhorst@fox61.com. Follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


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