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DOJ Cybersecurity Task Force Outlines Plans for Protecting Elections

The U.S. Justice Department’s Cyber-Digital Task Force made public its first report on Thursday, covering the threat to elections, cybercrime schemes, and various other topics.

The role of the Cyber-Digital Task Force, announced in February by the Attorney General, is to help the Department of Justice find ways to combat cyber threats and become more efficient in this area.

The task force focuses on election interference, critical infrastructure disruptions, use of the Internet for spreading violent ideologies and recruiting followers, botnets, the use of technology designed to hide criminal activities, and the theft of sensitive data.

The first chapter of the 156-page report focuses on what the Attorney General describes as “one of the most pressing cyber-enabled threats” confronting the U.S., specifically “malign foreign influence operations” and their impact on elections and other democratic institutions.

The types of threats described in the report include operations targeting voting machines, voter registration databases and other election infrastructure; operations targeting political entities; and covert influence operations whose goal is to harm political organizations and public officials.

The report specifically names Russia and cites the recent indictments related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Authorities are also concerned about disinformation operations that abuse social media and other forums to influence public opinion and sow division, and overt influence operations that involve lobbyists and foreign media.

The report also focuses on the upcoming midterm elections, which intelligence officials believe will be targeted by Russia. The Kremlin is expected to apply lessons learned from the campaign aimed at the 2016 election.

The task force has outlined plans to combat threats to the 2018 midterm elections, including ballot fraud, for which authorities believe the risk is real, despite no evidence of successful attempts.

The report also describes a framework for countering malign foreign influence operations aimed at the midterm elections.

Microsoft representatives revealed this week that the company already identified election-related hacking attempts. The tech giant spotted some phishing websites that appeared to be aimed at three unnamed congressional candidates.

“The Department of Justice plays an important role in combating foreign efforts to interfere in our elections, but it cannot alone solve the problem. There are limits to the Department’s role—and the role of the U.S. government—in addressing foreign influence operations aimed at sowing discord and undermining our Nation’s institutions,” the task force noted. “Combating foreign influence operations requires a whole-of-society approach that relies on coordinated actions by federal, State, and local government agencies; support from potential victims and the private sector; and the active engagement of an informed public.”

The next two chapters of the report are dedicated to cybercrime schemes, including damage to computer systems, fraud, data theft, threats to privacy (e.g. sextortion), and critical infrastructure attacks.

Chapter 4 of the report shows how the FBI responds to cyber threats, and Chapter 5 describes the Department of Justice’s efforts on training and managing its workforce.

The complete report is available from the DOJ in PDF format.

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.