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How Misinformed Citizens Put Government Personnel in Harm’s Way

What happens online can turn into physical threats.

For decades, government organizations have been challenged by the convergence of cyber and physical security within the perimeter. With internet of things devices expanding an agency’s attack surface and the interconnection of industrial control systems, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency advises government entities to evolve security strategies using a more holistic approach.

To take a truly holistic approach to security, however, organizations need to include an external cybersecurity perspective. They must consider the convergence of cyber and physical security taking place outside the perimeter. Why? Because physical threats are emerging from the cyber landscape against government employees. Threats such as impersonations, doxxing, swatting and cyber stalking are being planned and executed outside the boundary of an agency location by threat actors (or groups) who oppose a victim’s role or position in government and who intend to do them physical harm.

Let’s examine how government personnel are put in physical harm’s way by information that misinformed citizens post online and what can be done to minimize risk to their physical safety.

The effectiveness of influence: Supercharging the politically charged

Social media allows people to easily find others of like mind. Individuals and groups use social media platforms to invite, assemble and organize political movements that can quickly gain momentum and even supercharge those already highly emotional about an important issue or legislative decision. In this overheated political climate, it has become acceptable to attack the person in the role making the decision rather than attacking the decision itself. 

Unfortunately, this environment is the breeding ground for harmful misinformation campaigns. Foreign and homegrown actors can easily create and perpetuate information that fuels an extremist mindset that can ultimately put government personnel in harm’s way. 

ZeroFox’s cyber intelligence expert AJ Nash outlined in a recent blog why mis/disinformation is such an effective tactic for foreign and domestic adversaries, particularly in a politically charged climate:

  • Influence campaigns are cheap, scalable and don’t require access to secure systems.
  • Social media enables fast, wide dissemination that often obfuscates the original source.
  • Successful influence campaigns attack truth, and a large segment of America is unaccustomed to (or uninterested in) the principles of fact-checking and source validation.

He further stated that the same social platforms that were originally designed to help connect people around the world also empower foreign powers to manipulate opinion perhaps more effectively than at any other time in human history.

Election influence and beyond

While CISA reported only “a handful” of distributed denial-of-service attacks targeting state and local election websites during the recent midterm elections, in swing states like Pennsylvania, mis/disinformation was pervasive online and off. Misinformation or influence campaigns that can decrease the public’s trust in the electoral system (and in government overall) leave personnel vulnerable to physical security threats and the government organizations vulnerable to long-term reputational damage.

Kim Wyman, senior election security advisor for CISA, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that threats of physical violence directed against election administrators and the spread of election-related misinformation makes it more difficult for officials to do their jobs.

While a local election official is perhaps one of the most vulnerable to physical threats by homegrown actors with extreme political views, increasingly we are observing a growing occurrence of physical security incidents targeting an even broader span of government employees in various roles. The recent attack that took place at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home is an example. Another  took place outside Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s home when a threat actor found his address online, went to his home and threatened to kill him. 

Take this job and…

According to a survey of local election officials, 95% of respondents believe that social media is largely responsible for spreading misinformation about elections. Nearly one in three said they know at least one election worker who has left the job, partly due to safety concerns, increased threats or intimidation. One in six local election officials has personally experienced threats. The survey concluded that “political attacks on the election system are taking a toll on election officials—and are, in many cases, driving them out of their positions.” 

What can be done to minimize the impact of influence operations or “campaigns” in order to create a safer and more positive environment for government personnel?

A four-part solution

A shift will be required in how citizens consume information online, how social media platforms handle misleading information and how government organizations identify and remediate misinformation. Along these lines, progress is being made. 

In the near term:

  • Advanced technology can help government agencies greatly increase physical protection of their staff. An artificial intelligence-based platform can rapidly identify cyber and physical risks across social media and the full range of digital platforms. Physical security intelligence alerts an agency if a public safety threat develops close to a protected official’s home, for example, enabling protection teams to quickly assess the threat and provide support if needed. The solution also should provide an alert mechanism when someone makes a public threat online or when extremist rhetoric is spread on social platforms or identified on deep and dark web forums. 
  • Government organizations are beginning to implement external cybersecurity programs that monitor and remove disinformation that is promoted by threat actors as coming from government or other reliable sources.  

In the long term:

  • Citizens need to acknowledge the harm done when misinformation is acted upon. Thanks in large part to the 2016 election cycle, citizens have come to expect attempts to influence their opinions and beliefs about issues impacting an election. 
  • Nations around the world have been debating how social media platforms should handle misleading content. In mid-October, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation outlined a three-part plan focused on “developing ‘content moderation processes social media platforms can use to address controversial content moderation questions and improve the legitimacy of their content moderation practices.’” Debate on the best approach will likely continue into the future, but discussions like what we are seeing at the U.S. Congressional and G7 levels demonstrate that solving the misinformation problem is a global priority. 

Convergence between cybersecurity and physical security will prepare organizations to rapidly identify, prevent, mitigate and respond to threats. As technology evolves across various sectors, unified security policies that are founded on communication and collaboration are essential to enable a flexible security strategy. These actions along with the benefits of citizen education and collaboration between government and social media companies to combat mis/disinformation, outweigh the challenges that are created by a divided and disgruntled country. As world governments come together to discuss the best solutions, decisive action must be a priority to protect personnel from cyber and physical threats.

James Carnall is managing director and vice president of Public Sector Services at ZeroFox.