▶ Watch Video: Growing concerns about interference in U.S. elections

With less than three months to go until the 2020 election, federal, state and local officials are working to strengthen election security after U.S. intelligence agencies warned of the threat of interference by Russia or others who want to undermine our democracy. That follows evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“We’re kind of seeing the same things that we saw in 2016, but at a much larger scale,” CNET’s Dan Patterson told CBSN anchor Anne-Marie Green. 

The likely culprits this time around, Patterson said, may be a “blend” of “old adversaries like Russia’s CozyBear” — a military hacking group implicated in the 2016 hack of Democrats’ emails — and other nation-states targeting large-scale elections, as well as “domestic disinformation campaigns” that take advantage of widespread access to technology and people’s willingness to enter their personal information into smartphone apps. 

“What we’re hearing about now is kind of this blend of old standby attacks as well as innovative new hacks,” he said. “Technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, which means we’re seeing all sorts of domestic disinformation campaigns targeting, not just the general election, but targeting local and regional races.”

“Old standby attacks” include tactics such as phishing and ransomware. Phishing refers to fake messaging sent in order to trick people into sharing their information. Ransomware attacks consist of malicious software that blocks users’ data unless a ransom is paid.

Patterson pointed to the recent high-profile Twitter hack, for which a Florida teen was recently arrested, as an example of both the accessibility and effectiveness of phishing schemes. 

Spear-phishing, a similar tactic that uses available data to target a specific person or organization, was heavily used by Russian hackers in 2016.

“The new stuff we’re hearing about now, this is really interesting,” said Patterson, who is covering the annual Black Hat cybersecurity conference this week.

“Deepfakes,” digitally manipulated videos that make it appear as if someone said something they didn’t actually say, have been on the rise. Writer and director Jordan Peele famously made a “deepfake” video of former President Barack Obama to demonstrate how easy it was. 

Other altered videos have targeted high-profile politicians such as Nancy Pelosi. Another potential threat is “synthetic media” — images or audio fully or partially generated by computers.

“One example is say, you hear an audio recording or see a video that says Election Day is on Thursday instead of Tuesday, that could mislead people in a critical swing district into voting on the wrong day,” Patterson hypothesized. 

He said foreign adversaries’ goals in interfering in the U.S. election are “not so much to elect one person over the other person,” but rather to sow division and doubt over America’s democratic infrastructure. 

“They don’t care so much about winning one skirmish or another, but what they do want to do is cause us to be fractured, angry, and to doubt the results of the election,” Patterson said. “Let’s keep that in mind, as we approach Election Day, it’s really important to remember democracy, voting works.”