Franklin Foer for The Atlantic:
Jack Cable is a small emblem of how the U.S. government has struggled to outpace the Russians. After he spent the better part of a semester shouting into the wind, officials in Chicago and in the governor’s office finally took notice of his warnings and repaired their websites. Cable may have a further role to play in defending America’s election infrastructure. He is part of a team of competitive hackers at Stanford—national champions three years running—that caught the attention of Alex Stamos, a former head of security at Facebook, who now teaches at the university. Earlier this year, Stamos asked the Department of Homeland Security if he could pull together a group of undergraduates, Cable included, to lend Washington a hand in the search for bugs. “It’s talent, but unrefined talent,” Stamos told me. DHS, which has an acute understanding of the problem at hand but limited resources to solve it, accepted Stamos’s offer. Less than six months before Election Day, the government will attempt to identify democracy’s most glaring weakness by deploying college kids on their summer break.
Despite such well-intentioned efforts, the nation’s vulnerabilities have widened, not narrowed, during the past four years. Our politics are even more raw and fractured than in 2016; our faith in government—and, perhaps, democracy itself—is further strained. The coronavirus may meaningfully exacerbate these problems; at a minimum, the pandemic is leeching attention and resources from election defense. The president, meanwhile, has dismissed Russian interference as a hoax and fired or threatened intelligence officials who have contradicted that narrative, all while professing his affinity for the very man who ordered this assault on American democracy. Fiona Hill, the scholar who served as the top Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, told me, “The fact that they faced so little consequence for their action gives them little reason to stop.”
The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them. Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, they are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork. Having hacked into the inboxes of political operatives in the U.S. and abroad, they’ve pioneered new techniques for infiltrating campaigns and disseminating their stolen goods. Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.