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Should We Be Worried About Election Interference in 2020? Probably, says Facebook’s Former Chief Security Officer

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Alex Stamos, research scholar at the Cyber Policy Center, speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2018. Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch.

Alex Stamos is “extremely worried” that the upcoming U.S. presidential election will see some kind of interference from foreign adversaries.

“It’s too late for legislation — we start voting in the primaries in February,” Stamos told Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, on the World Class podcast. “And it’s really unfortunate that we as a society watched the ball fly over the plate on this one.”



A handful of states — including Georgia, New Jersey and South Carolina — do not have paper-ballot backup systems in place, which could cause significant problems in the case of a cyberattack against voting machines. In addition, all 50 states have some kind of Internet-connected voting infrastructure in place that could be vulnerable, said Stamos, who is a research scholar at the Cyber Policy Center.

Some things have changed since the 2016 election, however: for one, all three of the major tech companies (Google, Facebook and Twitter) have created teams that are responsible for finding and shutting down propaganda actors on their respective platforms. Before 2016, Stamos said, cybersecurity teams at those companies were mainly concerned with defending against issues like malware and account takeover fraud.

“It was a collective blind spot,” said Stamos, who was Facebook’s chief security officer from 2015 to 2018. “You had these people that come from a traditional cybersecurity background who did not consider propaganda to be their issue. That has since changed.”

Stamos also warned that the major tech companies need to make more of an effort to work together to combat disinformation. He pointed to the recent cooperation between Facebook and Twitter to shut down several accounts that originated in China and acted in a coordinated fashion to share messages and images that portrayed the protesters in Hong Kong as violent and extreme as a step in the right direction, and suggested that tech industry leaders follow the example of those outside of the Silicon Valley bubble when it comes to cooperation on security issues.

“Other industries are much more mature about understanding that their boats rise and fall together,” Stamos explained. “The traders at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley hate each other, but their chief security officers and security teams work together because they understand that if something bad happens to one bank, the regulatory and consumer pushback is going to hurt all of them… the truth is — whether or not you think your company is more ethical than another — if there is massive consumer distrust, it’s going to hit everybody.”

Related: Listen to Stamos and McFaul discuss the Mueller Report and the Russian disinformation campaign which was carried out in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.