World Affairs spotlights U.S. election interference

Bruce Barton/Town Crier
Alex Stamos discusses election meddling at last week’s World Affairs meeting in Los Altos.

A leading cyber-security expert believes the United States remains vulnerable to online attacks that threaten to undermine the integrity of its elections process.

Alex Stamos, speaking at the Jan. 8 meeting of the Peninsula Chapter of World Affairs at the Los Altos Youth Center, added that not much is being done about it.

The former Facebook security officer, currently a Stanford University professor and visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, described how the decentralized nature of U.S. elections systems – thousands of counties throughout the 50 states with their own separate information technology departments – makes it nearly impossible to fight off the barrage of cyber attacks from countries like Russia.

Stamos also noted that laws vary from state to state – California has a set of security standards in place, while other states have virtually none.

The attacks by Russians, particularly during the 2016 presidential election, were insidious in some cases, Stamos said, and the very laws guaranteeing freedom of speech under the First Amendment allowed for such deceitful communications to flourish.

“Even if you lie in political speech, it’s protected,” he said.

Stamos said Russian hackers worked to thwart Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2016. From the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta to the full-throttled use of social media, Russians tried – and some say succeeded – to influence the election and ensure a victory for Donald Trump.

Impersonating Americans, Russian hackers – some sanctioned by the Russian military – planted phony stories and encouraged conflict. Stamos detailed how hackers’ stories would be forwarded to people who liked what they read and then forwarded to others until the stories went viral and found millions of viewers. Stamos talked of “innocent Americans that got fooled into pushing Russian propaganda.” The mainstream media, at times, also fell for such ruses, he said.

“Unfortunately, nobody’s doing anything about this,” Stamos said. “You have to start the process (to combat interference) the day after the election because that’s when everyone’s talking about it.”

With little or nothing in place to prevent Russians – or others – from interfering again in 2020, Stamos suggested it’s up to individuals to be on guard. Clues like awkwardly phrased wording, he said, suggest that the messenger is not the American he or she claims to be.

“Be paranoid – think for yourself,” Stamos encouraged. “Don’t amplify messages that may make you feel good – but aren’t true.”

Stamos’ appearance is one in a series of talks about national and international issues sponsored by World Affairs.

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