Security Nation, S3 E6

How to Combat the Spread of Misinformation and Disinformation Ahead of the Election

Oct. 29, 2020

 

In our most recent episode of Security Nation, we spoke with Maria Barsallo Lynch, Executive Director of the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, about her work informing election officials of the rise of misinformation and disinformation campaigns centered around elections.

Stick around for the Rapid Rundown, where Tod cautions against panicking if (completely normal) disruptions occur on Election Day.

Appears on This Episode

Jen Ellis
Jen Ellis
Vice President, Community and Public Affairs

Jen Ellis is the vice president of community and public affairs at Rapid7. Jen’s primary focus is on creating positive social change to advance security for all. She believes that it is critical to build productive collaboration between those in the security community and those operating outside it, and to this end, she works extensively with security researchers, technology providers, operators, and influencers, and various government entities to help them understand and address cybersecurity challenges. She believes effective collaboration is our only path forward to reducing cyber attacks and protecting consumers and businesses. She has testified before Congress and spoken at a number of security industry events including SXSW, RSA, Derbycon, Shmoocon, SOURCE, UNITED, and various BSides.

Tod Beardsley
Tod Beardsley
Research Director, Rapid7

Tod Beardsley is the director of research at Rapid7. He has over 20 years of hands-on security experience, stretching from in-band telephony switching to modern IoT implementations. He has held IT Ops and IT Security positions in large organizations such as 3Com, Dell, and Westinghouse, as both an offensive and defensive practitioner. Today, Tod directs the myriad security research programs and initiatives at Rapid7. He can be uniquely identified at https://keybase.io/todb.

Maria Barsallo Lynch
Maria Barsallo Lynch
Executive Director, Defending Digital Democracy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School

Maria Barsallo Lynch is the Executive Director of the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P). 

Barsallo Lynch brings a background in politics and an academic background at the cross-section of cybersecurity and technology to D3P’s leadership team to help grow the project’s work and impact in providing solutions and tools to keep democratic processes safe.  She believes in the importance of helping decision makers and communities gain literacy in the growing fields of cybersecurity, technology innovation, and the space in between.

Barsallo Lynch has guided D3P’s research and recommendations on cybersecurity and influence operations ahead of the 2020 Election, which include realizing guides such as D3P's Election Influence Operations Playbook, among other playbooks, resources and trainings shared nationally. She is a collaborator on numerous efforts to further recommendations on issues in cybersecurity, technology, and policy. Barsallo Lynch recently co-lead research on digital tools for COVID-19 mitigation and has previously conducted research on data privacy. She also serves as a member of Berkman Klein Center's Digital Pandemic Response Working Group and Assembly Forum.

Barsallo Lynch has rooted her work in seeking systemic change for challenging social issues by leading funding strategy and program implementation in the nonprofit and political arenas.  Her background includes serving as a Deputy Finance Director for Colorado’s U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and as Director of Development for the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Colorado Schools. She was a Legislative Fellow with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. Inspired by her family’s humble roots and her experiences as a Panamanian immigrant to the United States, Barsallo Lynch is also the founder of a social enterprise called DESDE.  

Barsallo Lynch holds a B.A. from The Colorado College and serves on its Alumni Association Committee. She also holds an M.P.A. from the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is an alumna of the International DO School Fellowship.  

 

About the Security Nation Podcast

Security Nation is a podcast dedicated to celebrating the champions in the cybersecurity community who are advancing security in their own ways. We also cover the biggest events in security that you should know about. In each episode, host Jen Ellis (@infosecjen) sits down with a guest so they can share their stories, what worked, what didn’t, and what you can learn from their initiative so maybe we can inspire you to do something new, while Tod Beardsley breaks down the biggest security headlines of the week. 


View all Security Nation episodes

Podcast Transcript

Jen Ellis: Hi, and welcome to another thrilling installment of Security Nation, the podcast that I can absolutely tell you, I remember the name of. This is the podcast where we interview cool people doing interesting things to advance security in some way. I am your host, your gobby, chatty host, Jen Ellis, VP of Community and Public Affairs at Rapid7, and with me is my amazing co-host. Mr. Tod Beardsley. Hello, how are you doing?

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Tod Beardsley:

Hello. Hello. Hello. I am doing great. Just counting down to the election, Jen.

Jen Ellis:

I know, and I can't help believe we sort of stacked the deck on this one. The topic you're somewhat interested in. You want to just get a quick plug in there for people to vote right now? Do you want to just quickly get at that?

Tod Beardsley:

Yeah, sure. If you're able to vote, you should totally vote. Ideally in person, if you can do it early, you should do it early, depending on your state. But all of these ifs are because we have 9,000 different elections going on at the same time. That is not an exaggeration. And so all the rules are different everywhere. So maybe early voting is happening for you. Maybe you don't have early voting. And yes. Please go out and do the needful.

Jen Ellis:

So obviously because you have an interest in this area, you've totally brought in an amazing guest.

Tod Beardsley:

I have a ringer.

Jen Ellis:

Different topic for us, right? Like not as super security-centric as sometimes, but very closely related to election security. So this episode, we are joined by the amazing Maria Barsallo Lynch, who is executive director of the Defending Digital Democracy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. And she fits all of that into her email signature, I assume.

Tod Beardsley:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jen Ellis:

So Maria, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on the email signature.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Oh, thanks so much, Jen and Tod. I actually really try not to use my email signature unless I'm in touch with somebody who hasn't had a chance to meet me yet, but it's nice to be here with you. And especially, I appreciate so much about the conversations that you convene in helping make cyber-issues accessible to everyone, which I think it's an important thing. And especially right now ahead of the election, helping get to better understand mis and disinformation, threats and how we should be thinking about them. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about that with you today.

Jen Ellis:

Oh my god, Tod. This is the most polite guest we've ever had. I don't think anyone's ever come on before and thanked us.

Tod Beardsley:

I know, right?

Jen Ellis:

Amazing. Maria, you should come back all the time.

Tod Beardsley:

She's like a real professional. We should stop talking to security people is what I'm hearing.

Jen Ellis:

Right. Clearly, clearly. We should just stick with her. She's just nicer than everyone else that we talk to.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

That's really kind.

Jen Ellis:

Well, it's kind to you. The prior guests are obviously like, "We're never going on again. This is it." So Maria, tell us a little bit about the Defending Digital Democracy Project, which sounds amazing and totally like something that Tod has probably just salivated all over.

Tod Beardsley:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

So the Defending Digital Democracy Project, we go by D3P for short, but the project is a bipartisan project. And our mission is to really identify and recommend strategies and resources for decision-makers in the democratic process, as they work to counter cyber and information attacks. And the project was started in 2017 as a result of what we understood to have happened in the 2016 election that really highlighted the cyber and information attacks against our elections and was started by the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, Eric Rosenbach, who's the co-director of the Belfer Center. And he brought together just an incredible group of bipartisan experts in politics and cybersecurity and technology and national security, as well as students. We have, as a project, been so lucky to have the chance to put out playbooks, trainings, and recommendations at what I think has been a really vital time and us that are understanding these new threats to our national security, but then also being asked to really counter them and move quickly to counter them, recognizing that they're happening.

Jen Ellis:

So you were trying to give like practical advice then to people who are actually on the hook for administering... Is the right word? Maybe not. Local elections. So you're trying to actually help them navigate this new reality. Right?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Right. So we've had the opportunity to work with different decision-makers that are a part of the democratic process. So working with election officials and understanding their needs as well as helping train and think through the evolving threat landscape with both of these issue areas has been something the project has done. We actually started initially working on campaign cybersecurity and two of our co-founders and former senior fellows, Robbie Mook, who was the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's campaign, Matt Rhoades, who was the campaign manager for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, came together with Eric and others at D3P to create our very first playbook, which is the Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook, which has actually been translated into over 10 languages and continues to be a resource. In part, I think, because it really helps make cyber-hygiene issues and just a good intro to cybersecurity and personal cybersecurity, organizational cybersecurity for campaigns, and lays that out in a really accessible way.

Jen Ellis:

That's awesome. I know that this is a matter that is very close to Tod's heart. He's done a lot of advocacy work on as well, so I'm sure that he super appreciates this. So how has this been received? If it's been translated a bunch of times, it sounds like it's probably gone pretty well. Right?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Yeah. So I think we have had just the wonderful opportunity to work... The team that's always a part of the project, whether it's students, fellows, faculty, advisors, everyone is so committed to the mission of how do we help different decision-makers understand these threats and provide meaningful resources that can be applied practically in the short term. We have some immediacy, always to our work. The Campaign Cybersecurity Playbook ended up being translated and used by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute and their work with campaigns around the world. And then domestically in our work with election officials. Since before the midterm elections, we've had the opportunity to train and work with hundreds of election officials nationwide. When the project early on had started and wrote the first playbook for state and local election officials, we wanted to try and help make the playbook operational or make the concepts or frameworks, recommendations, give a further insight into them.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

So Eric Rosenbach, who's our director and founder, when he teaches classes at the Kennedy School, loves to use simulations. And as a part of our teams, we've always had people who have been either active duty military officers or retired military officers who have also seen just the great use of tabletop exercises as a way to practice. So we started doing tabletop exercises for election officials to help think through these different threats and how you might face them. And we've continued to use that model of training and engagement because I think it allows any of us... I don't know if you've ever gotten a chance to do a simulation, but this allows you to practice and iterate your response. And I think it's a great practice tool. So anyway, I think beyond kind of the playbook trainings, the project has also had the opportunity to provide congressional testimony, and just kind of write different reports that try to help advise the moment that we're living in and best recognizing these new threats, recognizing what they mean now to our national security, to our efforts to maintain the integrity of the democratic process and elections, and trying to provide insights that can be applied now.

Jen Ellis:

Which is great, and by the way, I will just say quickly love the shout-out for tabletop exercises and for running drills. It is something we talk about extensively in security, the need to prepare. And we run them internally. We recommend to others that they run them. So yeah. Love that shout out. Very sensible. This is fantastic. So you guys just came out with a new playbook, right? What was this on?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Yeah, so the playbook that we came out with recently is called the Elections Influence Operations Playbook for state and local election officials. And there are three guides as a part of the playbook. So you can think of them as mini playbooks, but the whole goal of the playbook was to help one understand election influence operations. What are the mis and disinformation incidents, narratives, attacks that we see most often around the election process, and to also provide a bit of a 101 around, what do we know so far about these type of tactics against the election? And then true to I think the nature of the project, the core piece... The other two guides are devoted to countering and response. And so part two of the playbook is really helping officials think through how to prepare and respond and create their own response plan.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And part three is equally, it's a non-public document for further planning as officials create and prepare for these incidents, and I know right now, we're so close to the election and it's important to note that we recognize influence operations are something that are happening before the election. They will happen during the election. They will also happen after the election. So we kind of have a framework that that is cyclical and thinking through the recognition of that arc. But although the playbook is written for state and local election officials, and we really created it as a resource for them, I personally also think, and we've talked about this a lot a lot of the project as we've been helping roll out the playbook that I think it's helpful for anybody, whether you're a voter, interested person, community member, official, elected official, it's a helpful 101 of how should I think about mis and disinformation.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

I think by now we've all become familiar enough in hearing those words, but maybe we don't often get enough examples about what those incidents really are. What does it really mean? And so if you're looking for a good 101, I think it's helpful for voters and others. And the other thing we've said for organizations, advocacy groups, civil society groups, and other individuals who can help officials as they look to share correct information for voters, countering any disinformation around the election process. It's a good way for you to understand how you can support officials in validating the information that they're trying to share with voters and helping share correct information when you see incidents like this in your community take traction.

Jen Ellis:

So firstly I love the fact that it is basically the Kinder Egg of the report world. It is. It's not one report. It's three reports in one. Chocolate, a toy, and a surprise. I liked the idea of it being a great 101 for people. And we will make sure that the link for it is in the notes to accompany this podcast so that people can go check it out for themselves.

Tod Beardsley:

The SEO was pretty good. Like if you just Google Election Influence Operations Playbook, it's the first hit. So it's like the first four hits. It is immediately followed by The Kremlin Playbook, though. So that's a little eyebrow raising.

Jen Ellis:

Hey, The Kremlin know what to do as well. And obviously it would be remiss of me not to ask you what is the difference between misinformation and disinformation. This is not a test. It does seem like it might be a test, though.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

I'm really glad that you asked that because it was actually going to be my follow-up, but I didn't want to give you a super, super, super long answer. So I think I'll mention about the playbook that although in part one, we give a little bit of a... We cover what are influence operations at a broader scale? What do we know about them so far? We really focus a lot of our recommendations and frameworks and response kind of analysis around mis and disinformation that happens during the election process. So let me unpack that for a minute, which is so influence operations is what we've decided to call it. A lot of times, you also hear these tactics referred to as information operations and this, from what I understand, then what we understand, is a traditional warfare tactic that has been used, but has now met a new digital medium and how these tactics can occur.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And something that I like about both the label of information operations and influence operations, is that in a period of time where we as voters, as people who are understanding these threats to elections are really still trying to understand what mis and disinformation looks and feels like, influence operations help speak to really the intent of these tactics. So if you can think of influence operations as a wider umbrella, mis and disinformation is one kind of maybe tactic within that wider umbrella of things. And so when you think about misinformation and disinformation, disinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately. And you could say it's likely by malicious actors because it's false information that's spread deliberately. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread mistakenly or unintentionally. And so that can be quite hard because we approach in our writing and in our thinking about frameworks and just recommendations, we realize when you as somebody on social media or when an election official encounters an incident, you may not know if it's misinformation or disinformation. Sometimes you do.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And we've seen stories of when officials are researching a claim and can understand that it might be misinformation versus disinformation, but maybe immediately when this piece of information reaches you, you're not able to distinguish between the two. But what you might be able to tell, and especially in the shoes of an election official, is if it's incorrect information. And so we wanted to... Because of how we want to make the resources that we work on as a project really actionable and usable, something we also determined to do in this scope is, we explained kind of broader issues that influence operations are trying to target. So for example, we understand and we know that influence operations are targeting cultural, political issues. We understand from the U.S. intelligence community that these kind of tactics are focused on undermining public faith in the U.S. democratic process.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And then we wanted to focus though on a subset of that, which is what are the trends that we have seen that particularly target the election process, where officials are in a place to look out for it, where they will face it, and how can we best help them prepare to counter that? So, for example, I think in prior election cycles, officials will have seen mis or disinformation around where to vote, how to vote, what the process looks like. So we in the playbook call it the five QS, but the who, what, when, where, how of elections, you can see that year after year, there are always reports of incidents that peak. Those are prime targets for these incidents. So we wanted to take the wider umbrella of how we recognize that this is happening and focus on the subset that is really defined around the election process.

Jen Ellis:

Awesome. Yeah, that sounds like a pretty amazing piece of work. And certainly I think we've all seen this year, like news reports of issues of specific polling stations. I mean, I think the most notable piece of hardcore propaganda that people have commented on is like the discussion around mail-in ballots.

Tod Beardsley:

That's the widest. Yeah. And it's crazy that we can talk about mail-in ballots, but I just think it's... I like the distinction that you gave, right, of misinformation versus disinformation. And it sounds like disinformation begets that misinformation. Right. Like in many cases. I'm curious how you distinguish between accidental misinformation versus kind of, I planted it two sources ago disinformation. Or can you distinguish?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And I want to touch on a couple of points there too, in terms of what you just mentioned. So to the last part of that question, the most immediate thing that you mentioned, I do think... So sure. Often disinformation can beget misinformation, but there's actually examples as well, where it is just misinformation. And in the playbook, our team had found a case study from a place where a voter legitimately thought that a voting machine was malfunctioning. And what actually happened is that the voting machine had a paper jam, but they took a video and they felt like their vote wasn't counting and it went viral. And the jurisdiction really investigated and made sure to address it and explain what had happened. So there are instances like that, and that's really quite the challenge too, because for election officials, especially when it's around voting, around the process that is happening, they have to be able to look at the information and begin a process of assessing it.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And then if it is incorrect, countering it, and the same thing is true for cyber-incidents in the election process. If there's a cyber-incident, there's a whole process of needing to investigate and again, figuring that out. But for the purposes of what we're talking about today around mis and disinformation, I think that that is only one of the challenges. The other thing that we were trying to be mindful of just given what we heard from officials as they're dealing with these incidents is how do you help provide some framework about what incident should you be reacting to or addressing? Because depending on the jurisdiction, depending on the types of incidents, there are so many ways that... The different tactics, there are a lot of ways that an official might encounter mis and disinformation. And so we talk a little bit about assessing each incident, giving some sort of a severity framework so that if a medium- or high-level incident, for example, has more of a chance of really affecting the integrity of the process or confidence in the process and other kind of markers of how quickly it's moving or how many people it might be covering, the response level will change.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Versus let's say there's an incident that maybe a lot of people haven't seen and you're sharing it widely, could then help further spread the disinformation, let's say. So it's very kind of thorny and difficult because these incidents occur in a lot of different ways.

Jen Ellis:

So what would be your No. 1 piece of advice that you would give to election officials who are worried about election security in the biggest sense? So like it could be security-centric, it could be information-centric, broadly across the board. What would be the No. 1 piece of advice you would give them? Is it read the reports?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

No, no. Because I know election officials are so busy right now. And in our work, we definitely see they're the professionals who are part of the democratic process, whether it's election officials or campaign officials. They're the experts in their work. What we are trying to do is help further detail this evolving threat landscape and help in what we understand could further support the process of dealing with these threats. And at least for officials, I guess whether it's on the security or information side, I think it's something that we have thought a lot about as a project is around how you're able to use your team coordinate and create avenues for identifying, assessing, responding. And we released a playbook in the past December with an amazing team who researched and had trained a lot of officials and brought together the playbook called an Elections Battle Staff Bootcamp.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

But what it's really about is helping coordinate and help leverage capacity and not just coordinate within your own team, but locally, statewide, et cetera. And I think with these different threats and now also operational risks and threats. So with the reality of the pandemic or other challenges that are just facing the election process, your ability to recognize how those play out together throughout the cycle, but then also knowing when you should be collaborating, et cetera, is important. But to make it more concrete for influence operations or their mis and disinformation incidents around the election process, we just did a briefing last week on what could you really do a month out? What is the most helpful thing to think about there. And our team, the biggest thing is that we at least with influence operations for officials, and you have to think that there are jurisdictions of different sizes.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Sometimes, maybe a jurisdiction is quite small and has mainly 1% or there are bigger jurisdiction sizes. So when we make recommendations, we also think about that reality, which is that there are different sizes, different capacities, capabilities. And so we always say these are ideas that you should really adapt for your context, but the kind of key things is that we've talked about checking what type of response plan you have and defining roles and responsibilities, just so that when you're trying to quickly respond to incorrect information, to a mis or disinformation incident, and you need to decide that it's medium- or high-severity, and you need to get information to voters and to others quickly, what does that process look like internally? And then we also discuss working with validators and in the process of building credibility.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

So we recommend that officials... Even if it's just with a phone call or more simple connection is really looking at what leaders are in their communities, advocacy groups, civil society groups, other officials who can help them share a message for incidents, where they need to get information to voters quickly and vice versa. I think we've encouraged those same kind of organizations or individuals who the playbook has reached to equally think about how they can help share information from their local election jurisdiction to voters. And then we also recommend scenario planning, sorry. So just thinking through what narrative you might be likely to see given what we know. And we suggest some in the playbook. Narrative meaning they can take... The mis and disinformation incidents might take different forms or might encompass different scenarios, but the narrative could span a number of scenarios.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

So we also just recommend thinking through that and what is most applicable to your jurisdiction. I want to say two more things. One is that a lot of what I've said is around response. I should recognize there has been a lot of work done by officials, by social media platforms, by a number of different stakeholders, the government, et cetera, around reporting and reporting is a big part of this, of how we deal with information threats. And there's definitely a recognition of that. And we did a lot of work on that in the playbook, but what we were also trying to add to this space is helping give response frameworks so that we see reporting and response as equally important and simultaneous actions that should be taken. I'm talking a lot about response because it's what officials are able to control. Reporting is equally important, but then that process goes on to other stakeholders who may then help slow an incident, take it down, et cetera.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

So the other thing I just wanted to mention because of Tod's point on mail-in ballots is you hit on something that I think again, highlights the cycle that we should all think about with these threats, which is they happen before, during, and after Election Day. And it can be more of a cycle than just like a one-time threat, and in recognition of that and what that particularly looks like given past trends, an anticipated narrative that could target the integrity of the election. We both recently released an election dataset that provides state by state information around the election process. We have an amazing team of students and alumni working on updating that data set like weekly because so much is changing state by state. And we always recommend that the best source of information for the who, what, when, where, how of elections are officials, election officials, but the dataset is an interactive data set that is intended to help highlight, for example, if a state knew that they were going to need to scale up mail-in ballots and do more work on that.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

And their anticipated use of mail-in ballot is going to be higher. What does that mean for results reporting? And I think as voters or interested people in this process, it's important to just recognize that the tempo of election night is going to be different for many reasons in this election cycle. There are operational realities that require that because of the pandemic, and the hope of the dataset is to just be a help, kind of fact finder, or be more informational about what might affect the reality of the reporting process of results versus what we're all very used to in elections reporting. Kind of having information right away. We know that this year it's going to be different. So that's something to keep in mind and that you hopefully will hear from others in this space or other officials that if results reporting is taking longer it means that things are hopefully being done right. Because there might be more mail-in ballots. There might be a different processing going on, depending on where you are.

Tod Beardsley:

Yeah. It's not that things are under attack. That's not leading to the delays. It is because people are working extremely, extremely hard in very unusual circumstances.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Exactly. Well, and we will say to Tod's point I don't want to be blanket statement about it because I do think it's important to ask questions, to make sure things are okay. And we encourage that. We encourage officials to share whether it's a cyber incident or information incident to share information with the public about the process, what they might be learning about an incident, and speak with facts and be transparent. And similarly, we hope that the election dataset, whether it's media professionals or officials or voters is just also a helpful information point for, okay, what might be going on in my state or local jurisdiction and given the elements of the election process, and what the reality of what my state has been doing given COVID. So we hope it just highlights those things. I just wanted to reference that.

Jen Ellis:

No, that's great. I mean, you are pro-democracy and all the bits that go with it, like transparency. So that is-

Tod Beardsley:

Like you, you filthy monarchist.

Jen Ellis:

I am. I like my monarchy though, with a side of democracy.

Tod Beardsley:

I gotcha.

Jen Ellis:

It sounds like an amazing initiative. It sounds like you're having incredible impact. We do always ask people like what are the biggest challenges being... What hasn't gone right?

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

I think, and maybe for anybody working in this space, the threats that we're facing are dynamic, and they can be hard sometimes. So what we might be providing may be helpful. And we hope that it's helpful to people in this space that are really, what sometimes our team calls on the frontline of defending democracy. But we also recognize that it may not be enough or maybe we haven't been able to reach enough people or to engage with enough people. So that's also something that we're mindful of, but yeah. And I would love to give that some further thought, but that's my at least immediate reaction.

Jen Ellis:

No. I mean, I think that's a great answer. And I think it's hard to stay engaged and positive sometimes when you feel like you're against insurmountable odds. So it's awesome to see efforts like this that continue and build, and don't give up in the face of just a pretty continuous threat.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

I will say something though that may sound too positive, but it's actually important to note as a part of this specific threat of information threats, which is that I think that there... Because of how we understand the intent, and this is just my opinion. So take it for what it is. I'm not maybe the best person to speak on this, but I think it's important to note while we're having this conversation, which is that with the intensive, these tactics to undermine confidence, to question the democratic process, if we feel like these tactics are more than the power of our democracy, are more than the power of all the people who are working to exercise their right to vote, or all the people who are working to counter these threats. I think it's important for us to keep in mind that yes, this event is real. We are starting to better understand that. There are a lot of efforts being done to counter it, but it doesn't have like the upper hand to us. And I certainly think that's an important thing to keep in mind, given the intent of the threat.

Jen Ellis:

Yeah. I think that's a very important note because I think sometimes people are sort of beholden to what they hear and read in the media. And I think the media has a habit of focusing on a particular angle and therefore making it seem disproportionately impactful or bad. So actually hearing you say that is quite refreshing, to be honest.

Maria Barsallo Lynch:

Yeah. And I think it's a hard space that we're living in too, right. Because whether it's how you counter these threats or how you talk about them, like in the media or in others, it's something we're all still learning and understanding further. And I know that we're going to make progress in how we address that further just given the way that it seems and from what I understand, is a trend in taking some of these narratives or of disinformation kind of helping it reach more people. It's really hard to unpack all of that. So I'm glad it's a helpful perspective, but I also want to recognize too that I feel like we're all still really understanding with our own roles and democracy, how that threat is reaching all of us and then what we should be doing about it.

Jen Ellis:

Yeah, absolutely. Great comment. Awesome. Well, as I said before, thank you for your efforts on this. I think it is extremely important. And as we get closer to that date in November, it is heartening to see that so many people are focused on how to protect democracy and how to ensure that the election runs in the right and appropriate way. Even as a filthy monarchist, I say that. Maria, thank you so much for coming on and telling us all about the Defending Digital Democracy Project. And as I said, thank you for all your efforts.

Jen Ellis:

Well, thank you again for Maria for coming on and talking to us about election security and misinformation, disinformation campaigns. So much interesting stuff to try to unpack there that has such a huge impact globally, not just in the U.S. elections, and is, I think, just having a super profound effect on our times, if you will. So yeah, very cool. I love it when we have people that come on who make me just feel really stupid, which we do seem to get quite a few people coming on who make me feel stupid, so maybe there's a thing there.

Jen Ellis:

So, Todsley! The Rapid Rundown! I hear this week that you're, rather than telling me what's happening right now, you're going to use your crystal ball. Tell me what's going on.

Tod Beardsley:

I will. And so ... Well, a little bit of what's happened. So I guess at the beginning, so we're recording this in the last week of October and this will be on the internet probably three or four, maybe five days before the election and ... the U.S. election, I don't know if you've heard, we're having one. It'll be great. It'll be so good.

Jen Ellis:

I heard something about this, like a rumor thing.

Tod Beardsley:

Yep, and I've already started getting reach from some press organizations saying like, "Hey, this county in Georgia had its election system hacked and it's full of ransomware. Do you want to talk about it?" Because people know that like I like talking about-

Jen Ellis:

Wait, was that a real thing, or is that just a hypothetical example?

Tod Beardsley:

That was real thing. And ... But here's the thing is that in that particular case, the county in question, they had their ransomware attack, way back on Oct. 7, but apparently somebody let slip last week it's was like, "Oh, and by the way, our voter signature verification database was also part of it." And so now suddenly it's an election story and I'm worried that in the next week, we're going to see a lot of these.

Tod Beardsley:

So, all of the random, normal failures that IT systems have, will suddenly have election implications and there will always be the questions like, "Is it politically motivated?" Or, if it's not politically motivated, "Is this going to impact the election?" And in the case of the voter signature database thing, all that means is that they have to switch over to manual voter signature database. And I can't believe that they had like a CSI style, like, "Beep, beep, boop, boop. Matched signature." Like, I don't think it was automatic. It was probably pretty manual to begin with. Because, signature matching is kind of an art and not really a science and not the greatest way to tell if a thing is from somebody.

Tod Beardsley:

So, I guess what I'm saying is that over the course of the next few days and beyond, beyond Nov. 3, expect to see a lot of reporting on failures in low resource counties. So like little rinky-dink counties that don't have a ton of voters in them and who are probably getting slammed with new voters. We've already seen that voter turnout during the early polling, in the many states that have early polling is enormous. We don't know if that means it's going to take pressure off of election day or if it just means election day is going to also be enormous.

Tod Beardsley:

And so we have these systems that are run by government that are suddenly going to get slammed through Nov. 3 and beyond, in the case of Pennsylvania, cool. Pennsylvania, by the way, it's a very delayed way to collect a mail-in ballots, up to like five days after election days. So, not that Pennsylvania matters, actually it does, but I do expect to see a lot of reporting on these failures. And so I just hope that the sort of people that listen to Security Nation, will take these with a grain of salt.

Jen Ellis:

You mean well-informed people?

Tod Beardsley:

Well-informed people who are very interested in security. Who remember that failures are normal and there are contingencies and backups. The people who are working on them tend to take their job very seriously, and will be working a lot long hours. Things will still fail and you will see a lot of attention on that, on whatever the percentage of failure. If it's a 1% failure, you don't ever hear about the 99% of the time that it works, right? You don't hear about LA County going online and staying online with their 10 million voters, right? That is just as a given, but you will hear about tiny counties in Texas, going offline for some amount of period.

Jen Ellis:

I mean, you literally just mentioned that county that went online and I'm already bored of it. And I'm like, "Oh, whatever. Tell me about the stuff that didn't work."

Tod Beardsley:

Right. Well, and I'm also worried about systems like same-day registration, this is a thing in 20, 21 states and the District of Columbia have you registered to vote on the day that you are voting, and so this is like a recipe for accidental denial of service of those systems that are not voting systems or registration systems, but they're really close and they're run by the same people. So, I expect some snafus there. We had the story, what, last week? Of the last day of voter registration in Virginia, things went offline because someone cut a cable by accident. And so, and it happens. It probably ... it wasn't an attack, but it was an outage. So, anyway, that's what I'm anticipating/worried about that some of these normal outages will be ascribed to conspiracy when it's just like, "That's just the failure rate guys, computers suck like that."

Jen Ellis:

I mean, I feel like squirrels everywhere are super familiar with this, like constantly hackers are taking the cred for things that squirrels did.

Tod Beardsley:

Yeah. Yes. So keep an eye out for cyber squirrel one. I can Google that.

Jen Ellis:

Dangerous squirrels on the loose, who knows what might happen?

Tod Beardsley:

So, that's what I got. I'll be working on election day, so don't try to call me, I am a poll worker. And, if you are young, young-ish, "Young like me." And, reasonably healthy and able to come out, please help people vote in any way you can. And we'll get, through this together.

Jen Ellis:

That's a lovely message to end on, even though it sounds a little bit like we're going to war. Awesome, go to war and vote, volunteer, help people as much as you can, and don't freak out over every little new story. That's what I'm getting from this.

Tod Beardsley:

That is correct. Oh, and by the way, if you do have a tasty bug, a vulnerability in an election system, tell U.S. Cert, you can go ahead and Google them. I think at this point, that's probably your best bet. By the time you hear this we're, like I said, maybe four or five days before the election, it will be no time to fix, but at least let them know, and maybe they'll be able to have some instrumentation to pay attention to it.

Jen Ellis:

A bubble, just dumping it on Twitter is probably not the way to go-

Tod Beardsley:

Terrible idea-

Jen Ellis:

Unless you have, I mean, just the most compelling reason to do that. Like, I don't know, agents of a foreign government are after you and your life is literally in danger. Unless you're basically living a Gene Hackman movie of some description, you think like the net of this is don't dump it on Twitter, talk to the government and get it across in the appropriate way.

Tod Beardsley:

Yep. They're pretty smart over there. And they have some pretty good detection capabilities. So, at the very least that would be the thing to do or sit on it, whatever you probably shouldn't sit on it. You should probably tell U.S. Cert.

Jen Ellis:

Yeah. Okay. Good advice. Excellent advice, as usual. Thank you very much. So, I mean to all of you Americans, regardless of which party you favor, good luck for the election, and let's hope that we don't see too much influence of the misinformation and disinformation that Maria came on to talk about, and I look forward to getting an update on all of this stuff in future episodes. Until-

Tod Beardsley:

Until our next episode, it will be post election day. That'll be a time. I can't even see beyond it. It's like a singularity.

Jen Ellis:

Right, absolutely. I mean, that is how it feels right now, for sure. So thank you for talking us through this stuff, Tod, thank you to our guest this week, Maria, and thank you as ever to our amazing, amazing producer Bri, the saint that she is. And, I look forward to hearing what happens in the next episode.