Trump's refusal to concede the election is creating an opening for cybercriminals to mount attacks on American companies, experts warn

  • Former government officials and cybersecurity experts say election disinformation makes Americans vulnerable to cyberattack, particularly given President Donald Trump's widely-debunked claims of election fraud and his refusal to concede the election to Joe Biden.
  • Companies are more vulnerable to attack as remote workers are hit with another threat – convincing phishing emails disguised as election information. 
  • Disinformation makes it more difficult for workers to wade through divisive claims and counter-claims in a tense public forum. 
  • Foreign adversaries and criminals will capitalize on the current climate to sow discord, and lure readers into clicking on malicious links, experts warn. 
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Disinformation swirling around the presidential election provides nation-state adversaries, cybercriminals, and malicious hackers with an ideal environment to attack companies and remote employees with malicious emails, say former government officials and cybersecurity experts. 

Business email scammers – which cost companies $1.7 billion last year – capitalize on controversy and jangled nerves, experts say. A disputed election on top of COVID-19 gives cybercriminals a massive opportunity to cloak malicious links in official-looking messages.  

"People are anxious right now and want to know answers," says retired Air Force Major General Brett Williams, who helped to build the Department of Defenses cybersecurity department, US Cyber Command. People are less likely to slow down and evaluate information, opening up US enterprises to cyberattacks, Williams says. 

The situation is heightened by provocative claims posted by powerful officials, experts say. President Donald Trump has so far refused to concede to president-elect Joe Biden, citing claims of election fraud that have been debunked by government officials and social media platforms — shaking confidence in the election and opening up a divisive atmosphere filled with confusing and conflicting information, experts say. 

"The president is going to play the cards he has," says Williams. "Jeopardizing people's confidence and trust in the system is not productive."     

Cyberattacks will flow into the current environment, experts say. 

"Cybercriminals never let a good crisis go to waste," says Theresa Payton, who was chief information officer of the White House under President George W. Bush. "They adapt to uncertainty and super-charge their efforts. There's a possibility of protests. We're in a pandemic. There has never been an easier time to launch cyberattacks."

Payton says the current divisive atmosphere is difficult for companies that must choose where to put scarce financial resources as they wait out an economic rebound from COVID-19. With an online battle raging over election results, disinformation and distrust require extra cybersecurity resources at a tough time.

Companies 'don't know what's coming next'

"I have a set of clients whose revenue is down 75%," she says of the companies who employ her cybersecurity company, Fortalice Solutions. Suddenly there is new uncertainty added to COVID-19 pandemic pressures, she says. "They're trying to preserve their resources, and they just don't know what's coming next."

Other experts say a highly charged political atmosphere is bound to distract already vulnerable remote employees. 

"Disinformation affects everyone," says Michael McNerney, a former Defense Department cybersecurity advisor and now chief operating officer of Resilience cybersecurity insurance. "Politics have come into the workplace in a way they never have before. This moment is an incredible burden on employees working from home."

Right now a cybercriminal could easily capitalize on the current atmosphere to attack employees with phishing emails, McNerney says.

Business email scams cost companies $1.7 billion last year, the FBI says. Companies need all the help they can get when it comes to defending against the untruths that often hide malicious links and criminal scams, McNerney says. "If I got an email saying there was a terrorism incident at my daughter's school right now, you bet I would click on it. Attacking each other makes our adversaries' jobs much easier." 

Election-related domain-spoofing makes emails convincing

Protecting employees from malicious messaging is even harder right now because domain spoofing – in which criminals can make emails look as though they are coming from government agencies and political campaigns – is rampant, making phishing emails very difficult to spot, experts say.

Research from the email security firm Valimail found that most political domains are unprotected from email spoofing, meaning they could easily be impersonated by attackers pretending to play some role in the election infrastructure.  

"Spoofed emails are a clear and present danger for organizations and businesses," says Dylan Tweney, Valimail's head of research. "It's easy today for bad actors to distribute misinformation by impersonating many election officials."

The current atmosphere is also a hotbed for attacks on large enterprises from nation-states, experts say. "It is fantastic for our adversaries," says Marcus Fowler, director of strategic threat at Darktrace, and a 15-year veteran of the CIA. "Things are much easier for all of the agents of chaos." 

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