SALT LAKE CITY — Special counsel Robert Mueller's last words Wednesday were an ominous warning to voters and state election officials leading up to the 2020 general election:
"And I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American."
Mueller was referring to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In his first public remarks since he accepted the special prosecutor assignment to investigate Russia's interference with the past presidential election, Mueller summarized his 400-page report that detailed how Russian military launched a concerted attack on the United States' political system by hacking into the Hillary Clinton campaign computer system and releasing private information to "damage a political candidate."
"And at the same time as the grand jury alleged in a separate indictment, a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to influence an election," Mueller said.
His two-year investigation resulted in multiple indictments, including two against 13 Russian nationals, 12 Russian military intelligence officers and three Russian companies tied to interfering with the 2016 election, according to VOX.
His team also investigated whether then-candidate Donald Trump's campaign worked with the Russians to influence the election, but found "insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy."
While Mueller also addressed the second part of his investigation into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice in interfering with the special counsel's probe, Mueller concluded his remarks by coming back to the primary reason for his appointment: to understand and address interference in an American election by foreign governments.
"We know they are going to do it again," said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "And by the way, so will China and so will Iran and so will North Korea so many of our other adversaries because they know that they can do it and it can be effective."
The election system
Mueller's emphasis that all Americans should be aware of foreign interference in elections was telling to cyber security officials and others responsible for protecting cyberspace.
"Elections are vital to our form of government," said Justin Lee, elections director for Utah. "If people can't trust how well the elections are working, then it's hard for them to trust the government that comes out of those elections."
The Deseret News detailed the interagency efforts in Utah that took place in advance of and during the 2018 midterms elections. The story explained how notification of issues with the Arizona election system headed off a similar attack on Utah.
At that time Utah Department of Technology Services Information Security officer Phil Bates said the state is able to block access from unnamed foreign countries, allowing security officers to monitor a manageable 600 million to 700 million incidents per day.
Lee said that training local election officials will be a big part of preparing for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. "Some of the big things do come down to the human factor," Lee said, referring to the precautions that are taken when officials access voter databases.
"Any user with access to that has to take an annual training on cyber security," he said. Training includes exercises to protect against and identify security threats.
While Trump has expressed doubt about Russian interference in the 2016 election, White House spokeswoman Sara Sanders, speaking to reporters following Mueller's statement, acknowledged there is a problem, blamed it on the Obama administration and said the administration is trying "to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"We've taken a whole-of-government approach," she said. "The Department of Homeland Security has met with officials that conduct elections in all 50 states. We're doing constant cooperation and coordination between all 50 states to try to prevent this from ever happening again."
The voter's role
The integrity of state databases and equipment used to cast and tally ballots is one part of the security equation. The other is the integrity of the individual voter, many of whom were reportedly duped and manipulated in 2016 by foreign players through social media.
"We have a tendency on social media to repost anything that looks interesting without really thinking about how valid or verifiable it is," said Dale Rowe, a cyber security expert and information technology professor at BYU.
He explained that voters have a duty to become more media literate and be more aware of the biases of the source of the information, particularly when the information conveniently confirms your own bias.
Lee gave a shout-out to the state's voter information guides on ballot issues and to weigh what voters learn about candidates through individuals, social media and news media against what the candidates or their political parties are publishing.
For Stephen Cobb, a senior security researcher with the security software firm ESET, the best solutions for voters don't involve computer security or navigating the vulnerabilities of the internet and social media.
He said elections have become an "abstraction" distanced from reality.
"What used to be the political process of going to local meetings and hearing campaign speeches and potentially meeting with candidates, we're just sitting in the armchair, clicking away on social media," Cobb observed. "I think the answer is engagement in the political process" by attending candidate rallies, talking with people face-to-face and volunteering as a poll worker.60 comments on this story
The interference is happening beyond elections and in the broader political realm, Stewart said, noting a recent social media ad campaign out of China attempting to turn Midwest farmers against the Trump administration's trade policies.
He said the country's enemies are not kingmakers trying to place certain people into political office.
"What's happened is they just break down faith in democracy and ... frankly, faith in each other and create a lot of animosity, a lot of hatred and anger towards each other," Stewart said. "And if that is their measure, then they know that's achievable, and they know that it can have an impact."