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The Looming Threat to the 2020 Election

By: Kimiya Gilani

With the investigation that was sparked after the 2016 election, interference by Russia in the 2020 election is a looming threat. As technologies continue to advance and foreign actors’ capabilities and tactics are refined and progressed, the threat of intervention has increased and has further put  our democratic process in danger through possible tampering in our systems. Just earlier this month, a court filing revealed that a Russian troll farm targeted Special Counsel Robert Mueller late last year in a false information campaign. The threat of targeted attacks to discredit American democracy is a present danger and will continue to be a danger to our democracy and national security. Though President Trump continues to deny and downplay Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election, US intelligence chiefs maintain that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. That election has shown us that tampering attacks as well as social media influence operations are a present threat and threaten the future of our democratic processes.

The Department of Homeland Security has been making efforts to guard against cyberattacks by ordering federal agencies to implement protective steps. The specific aim of these protective steps is to protect against tampering in the 2020 election. Though the 2018 election was successfully safeguarded against tampering and hacking, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has warned against a targeted attack on the 2020 election, which could include the spreading of disinformation, hacking campaigns, and attempts at manipulating data in order to influence US elections as well as policies and actions of the US.

44 United States Code §3553(h) authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue emergency directives to the head of any agency for the purpose of protecting information from an information security threat. It allows for the head of an agency “to take any lawful action with respect to the operation of the information system, including such systems used or operated by another entity on behalf of an agency, that collects, processes, stores, transmits, disseminates, or otherwise maintains agency information, for the purpose of protecting the information system from, or mitigating, an information security threat.” Emergency Directive 19-01 was issued by the Department of Homeland Security to mitigate DNS (Domain Name System) infrastructure tampering and, under 44 U.S.C. §3554(a)(1)(B)(v), federal agencies are required to comply with these directives. Emergency Directive 19-01 was implemented in response to a number of reported tampering incidents of agencies’ domain name systems. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has been tracking these incidents and notifying agencies whose domains were impacted by the tampering incidents.

Though directives from the DHS to other federal agencies can take away from agency autonomy, compliance with these directives are an essential part of protecting agencies’ information security from the threat of foreign actors. DHS emergency directives are a way to place a check on agencies and can ensure that there are systems in place to protect against foreign and domestic intervention. By addressing the instances that have been occurring and working to strengthen systems in place, the Department of Homeland Security is taking essential steps towards preventing a targeted attack by Russia and other foreign actors who are concerned with interfering and tampering with our democratic elections.

In order to ensure the future of our democratic processes and freedom from intervention in them, federal agencies must comply with directives from the Department of Homeland Security. DHS, in issuing the 19-01 Emergency Directive, has had to analyze the security needs of federal agencies and the effects a targeted attack could have on the future of our country and its electoral processes.


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