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Russia using social media to divide Americans, says US homeland security head

Homeland Security Department says Russian hackers don’t appear so focussed on mid-term elections as they were on Trump and Clinton’s 2016 clash

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 7:30pm

US homeland security has played down concerns Russian hackers might target this year’s midterm elections with the same “scale or scope” they allegedly did in the 2016 presidential election.

Kirstjen Nielsen spoke at a convention of state secretaries of state, an event that is normally a low-key affair discussing voter registration, balloting devices and election security issues that do not usually get much attention. But coming after fresh allegations Russia tried to sway the 2016 election, the sessions have suddenly become more popular.

Nielsen said her agency will help state and local election officials prepare their systems for cyberattacks from Russia or elsewhere.

She said US intelligence officials are seeing “persistent Russian efforts using social media, sympathetic spokespeople and other fronts to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American people, though not necessarily focused on specific politicians or political campaigns”.

The conference of top state election officials she addressed was sandwiched between Friday’s indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers alleged to have hacked into Democratic Party and campaign accounts and Monday’s long-awaited meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump has never condemned Russia for its alleged meddling in the 2016 election, despite claims from US intelligence agencies, and the Kremlin has insisted it did not meddle in the US election. In the past, Trump has reiterated Putin’s denials, but this week he said he would bring up the issue when they meet on Monday in Finland.

“All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’” Trump said days ago at a news conference in Brussels. “And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”

Some of the state officials who run elections said it is important for Trump, a Republican, to take a tougher stance to avoid having the public’s confidence in fair elections undermined.

“I believe as commander in chief he has an obligation to address it and, frankly, put Putin and any other foreign nation that seeks to undermine our democracy on notice that the actions will not be tolerated,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Some of his peers declined to go that far.

“I don’t go around telling the president what to do,” said Jay Ashcroft, the Republican secretary of state in Missouri.

Trump portrays the investigation as a partisan attack, but not all Republicans see it that way. This month, the Republicans and Democrats on the US Senate Intelligence Committee backed the findings of an assessment from US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election and acted in favour of Trump and against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

There’s no evidence any vote results were altered, but the attempts prompted the federal government and states to re-examine election systems and tighten their cybersecurity.

Federal officials also say it is possible that malware might have been planted that could tamper with voting or paralyse computer systems in future elections.

The election officials talked about technical details of blocking an incursion.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, told her peers how her state is using its National Guard to help tighten cybersecurity for elections. She said it is important to make clear to voters that the military is not running elections and does not have access to election data.

“The whole idea of this is to instil confidence in voters and the public that the system is secure,” Wyman said.

Some state officials also said homeland security is becoming more helpful in sharing information.

Friday’s indictment claims Russian intelligence officers hacked into Democratic campaign networks then stole and released tens of thousands of documents. The indictment said one of the intrusions came that summer, on a vendor whose software was used to verify voter registration information. The indictment refers to a spoof email sent to more than 100 election-managing customers of the vendor to try to get more information.