Tech

Foreign election trolls continue to gain traction, fueled by cryptocurrencies and the sale of 'influence packages' online: NSA cyber lead

Key Points
  • Nation-states are still active on social media and working to influence public opinion and rancor, even as companies like Facebook and Twitter have tried to put controls on foreign trolls, said Anne Neuberger, lead investigator on election fraud for the National Security Agency on Tuesday. 
  • Today's trolls have similar goals to past ones, namely "Making people in a democratic nation question whether democracy is the best way?"
Anne Neuberger
Source: NSA

Nation-states are still active on social media and working to influence public opinion and create rancor, even as companies like Facebook and Twitter have tried to put controls on foreign trolls, said Anne Neuberger, lead investigator on election fraud for the National Security Agency on Tuesday.

Neuberger, speaking at the International Conference on Cybersecurity in New York said the continued increase in availability of cryptocurrencies combined with the emergence of comprehensive social media "influence packages" have given foreign actors new avenues of influence on popular platforms. Neuberger was also named to lead a new cybersecurity directorate established at the NSA on Tuesday.

The specifics on many social media influence packages are often hazy but they can include mentions by high-ranked influencers or the ability to purchase large numbers of fake followers.

Neuberger said the NSA has observed that "foreign adversaries" are today, like prior to 2016, "more focused on driving divisive issues, including inciting people against one another," both at in-person events and online. Today's trolls have similar goals to past ones, namely "Making people in a democratic nation question whether democracy is the best way" forward.

The NSA is taking a three-part approach to handling the continued onslaught of elections interference in advance of 2020. Neuberger said the NSA is doing the following:

  • Ensuring the NSA maintains insights into attempts to influence upcoming elections, including partnerships with other countries that may be similarly effected.
  • Finding new, better or more creative ways to share classified information, including working with DHS in its efforts to partner with state and local entities, as well as technology companies that are involved in elections.
  • Working with the FBI, on the influence side, to continue enforcing integrity of elections.

For 2020, Neuberger also said that while the cybersecurity agencies within the federal government are focused on election security, "a big part of that integrity is that each American ... is ensuring we educate ourselves, and being aware of what we read online."

On the voting equipment side, Chris Wlaschin, vice president of systems security for Election Systems & Software, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of voting equipment, said his company and others have been working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies to ready for upcoming elections.

He said the diversity of voting equipment throughout the country, given each state's independence in making purchasing decisions and selecting equipment and methods, is a strength. That's because the equipment is not interconnected, Wlaschin said, and elections systems today are unable to connect to the wider internet.

Wlaschin also said that he expects mobile voting technology to be adopted in the near future for states that are demanding the option, and that developers are focusing on security of this new technology. "We are working hard to support that," he said.

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