The U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart issued a warning in October: The Russians were back and growing stealthier. They said groups linked to Russia’s intelligence agencies had been uncovered boring into the network of an elite Iranian hacking unit and attacking governments and private companies in the Middle East and Britain. For federal and state officials charged with readying defenses for the 2020 election, it meant that the next cyberwar was not going to be like the last. It’s shaping up to be an ugly campaign season marred by hacking and disinformation, reports the New York Times. U.S. defenses have vastly improved in the four years since Russian hackers and trolls mounted a campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. Facebook is looking for threats it barely knew existed in 2016, such as fake ads paid for in rubles. Military officials are considering whether to retaliate against election interference by hacking senior Russian officials and leaking their personal emails or financial information.
Interviews with dozens of officials and experts make clear that many vulnerabilities exploited by Moscow in 2016 remain. Most political campaigns are unwilling to set up effective cyberdefenses. Those charged with protecting elections face the same challenge they did four years ago: to spot and head off any attack before it can disrupt voting or sow doubts about the outcome. The Department of Homeland Security is anxious about a spate of ransomware attacks on U.S. towns and cities over the last year. The attacks, officials say, revealed gaping security holes that could be exploited by those looking to disrupt voting by locking up and ransoming voter rolls or simply cutting power at critical polling centers on Election Day. And while large-scale hacking of voting machines is difficult, it is by no means impossible.