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Officials Say Disinformation, Not Data Breaches, Are Biggest Threat In 2020 Elections

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Dana Vollmer
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Peoria Public Radio
Illinois State Board of Elections Cybersecurity Officer Neil Herron (center) joins Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman (left) and other county election officials at a press conference Jan. 30, 2020.

Illinois election officials are working to defend against foreign cyberattacks in this year's elections.

That comes after Russian hackers accessed the personal information of 76,000 Illinois voters in 2016. Part of the effort is a secure fiber-optic line connecting local and state election authorities, as well as increased training and resources for counties..

Neil Herron works with local election officials through the Cyber Navigator program, which helps defend against breaches and detect and recover from cyberattacks. He said the most prevalent threat isn't hacking into the voting system, it's disinformation campaigns.

“The vote itself is very secure,” he said. “The amount of effort it would take to actually change the vote, especially in any meaningful way, no one would bother. It's a lot easier to change the perception -- to get stories out there that might have a kernel of truth, but then you expound on it to try and craft the narrative."

Herron said foreign disinformation campaigns surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the United Kingdom's Brexit vote and France's 2018 elections show how effective misleading the public can be.

"Those three attacks by Russia alone cost less than a brand new fighter jet for the United States to buy,” he said. “So, other countries have seen how inexpensive it is, how easy it is to do and have started to replicate it for the stuff that they're more interested in."

For example, Herron said, Iran has been focusing on the more liberal side of American society while Russia continues to target the more conservative side. He said they “push their propaganda through a mix of truths and falsehoods,” making it difficult to decipher what's real.

Herron said the best defense is critical thinking by citizens. He said to exercise scrutiny when reading things on social media by looking for bias language or attempts to make the reader feel a certain way.

McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael added disinformation can also spread locally. She said erroneous claims that a polling place in her county had run out ballots spread on social media, potentially discouraging some people from voting.