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Information Warfare and Election Security

By Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso USAF (Ret.) •  January 28, 2020

“Let us immediately establish the point. Our enemies know full well that news is an important weapon in modern warfare and they are unceasingly applying their knowledge as they wage total war. How they do so directly affects every one of us.”   ― Matthew Gordon, News is a Weapon


It will be touted as the fight of the ages; greater than the “Thrilla in Manila” world heavyweight championship boxing match between the greats Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.  Mark your calendars now for 3 November 2020.

The presidential race is in full stride.  Potential candidates are canvassing our country in an effort to appeal to the American public for their vote.  As our nations prepares itself for its next major election, predictions indicate it will be a close race.  Americans want a secure, fair and transparent election process.

But since the presidential election of 2016, Americans have been inundated with news about unfair play and interference by foreign adversaries, casting doubt for many on the legitimacy of the election.  Stories of successful data manipulation and the destruction of information on servers, as well as the use of identity theft, misinformation, propaganda, bots, fake online personas, trolls, political ads and news events on social media sites continue to haunt us today, three years after the election.  These are all examples of information warfare.

Information warfare (IW) is not new.  The history of warfare is replete with examples of how misinformation, propaganda, and deception were used to get the upper hand.  According to Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military theorist and philosopher, “all warfare is deception.” During the Cold War, for instance, the Russians were masters of IW.  From a Russian perspective, IW is a tool to be used throughout the full spectrum of warfare—from day-to-day peaceful operations to lethal combat.

The difference between the IW used today versus IW used during the Cold War is the “speed to effect.”  The consequences of misinformation, propaganda and deception has moved from days and weeks, to the click of a mouse.

Today, IW is used to weaken and divide the United States and the global community on important issues (politics, immigration, guns, and race, among others) and its effectiveness rests on our adversary’s ability to successfully access our modern day technology and communication platforms.

Assuring the trust citizens have in the election system is critical.  According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), election security refers to the protection of voting infrastructure from cyber threats. Election infrastructure was designated by DHS as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure in January 2017, and includes but is not limited to:

  • Voter registration databases and associated IT systems
  • IT infrastructure and systems used to manage elections (such as the counting, auditing and displaying of election results, and post-election reporting to certify and validate results)
  • Voting systems and associated infrastructure
  • Storage facilities for election and voting system infrastructure
  • Polling places, to include early voting locations

As we move into the next election cycle, we must be ready to combat cyber threats to ensure our democracy and way of life.  This can be done by:

  • Understanding the IW threat is real
  • Increasing public awareness of the IW threat
  • Having closer cooperation and information sharing between government and social media companies
  • Monitoring the use of social media by foreign governments
  • Using air-gapped voting systems with hand-marked paper ballots to support audits and recounts
  • Adhering to cybersecurity infrastructure best practices, such as:
    • ensuring proper cyber hygiene — updating device settings and software OS
    • implementing strong passwords
    • providing personnel education and training
    • limiting access control to critical infrastructure
    • using multifactor authentication, and
    • conducting assessments and audits on our election infrastructure

IW is an effective tool that is used by our adversaries with relative ease.  Combating its effectiveness will require a partnership between government and industry, and an informed, engaged citizenry.

Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso USAF (Ret.)

Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso USAF (Ret.)

Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso (Ret.) is the vice president of strategic programs at Telos Corporation. See full bio...

The Empower and Protect Blog brings you cybersecurity and information technology insights from top industry experts at Telos.

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