“Vote for Trump or else!” is what CNN found out was stated in emails that, by Tuesday night, have reached voters in four states, three of them being key swing states for the 2020 presidential election. They found their targets by using data from the voter files, “rich and comprehensive” digital databases that contain information regarding voter registration and election turnout.
The responsible individuals were purported to be the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group supportive of President Donald Trump. The recipients have been told the group was “in possession of all your information” and were told to change their party affiliation and then ¨vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you¨
So far, the states that have been affected by the online attacks are Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, and Alaska, which despite not being a major focus for the presidential election does have a closely watched Senate race.
The Proud Boys, however, have denied involvement, their chairman claiming that the group operates on two sites and was no longer actively using the domain used in the campaign. The domain was recently dropped by a hosting company that used Google iCloud services after it was notified by a nonprofit of the Proud Boys extremist behaviors. This appears to have left the domain unsecured, which could allow anyone to take control of it and send out these messages. In fact, one email has been shown to use infrastructure that is used in Saudi Arabia and another was traced to Estonia.
Federal authorities, elections officials, and experts in disinformation have issued warnings on online campaigns relating to voter intimidation. Christopher C. Krebs, a director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, said in a now deleted tweet, “Ballot secrecy is a guaranteed law in all states, adding that ¨these emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections.”
Some cybersecurity experts have already brought up the possibility of foreign involvement. John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab believes that “This isn’t someone with a fake email account sending messages. This is an operation. The questions will be: how big was it, how many were targeted, and how well were tracks covered.” In addition, “it appears that the operators likely leveraged multiple insecure servers that they probably didn’t own in different countries, including Saudi Arabia, to send messages.”
However, there is no need to wonder any longer because according to the Washington Post, two days after these incidents got national news attention John Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence, has blamed Iran for the attacks. He warned the public in a last minute news conference Wednesday night that both Iran and Russia have obtained voter data in a bid to endanger the election and undermine democratic confidence.