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Campaign 2018: These hacking groups could target the 2018 midterm elections

Nation-states, corporations and hacktivist groups meddle with elections in the US and around the world.

Ian Knighton/CNET

Elections around the world are under siege from a diverse set of threat actors and hackers.

"This really is a global trend," said Andrea Little Limbago, the chief social scientist at Endgame, a cybersecurity firm. "About 18 different democracies in 2016 alone had their elections interfered with by a variety of different means."

While the spectrum of politically motivated hackers is as broad as the spectrum of vulnerabilities, Little Limbago says that nation-states, private companies and hacktivist groups are most likely to meddle with elections.

Russia, China and Iran are the most aggressive nation-states targeting elections. "We've seen Russian interference really targeting Europe," she said. "And in Turkey, Sweden, Italy, the Irish referendum."

While China is a sophisticated hacking threat and notorious for swiping the intellectual property of American technology firms, its political interests are primarily regional, she says. China recently attacked Taiwan with "cybervandalism" and propaganda pushing Chinese policies. In Cambodia, China engaged in "data theft of [voter] registration rolls" and "political espionage."

Iran is also a sophisticated threat actor, and like China its targets tend to be regional. In August, Reuters discovered a "sprawling network" of Iranian sites and social media accounts linked to influence campaigns targeting the 2019 Israeli Knesset elections.

To fund its hacking operations, "Iran has been willing to [launch] global campaigns against financial institutions," Little Limbago said. Iran has targeted allies of the United States, but its attacks against Western nations have historically been "for reconnaissance" and espionage.

Sub-state level actors and corporations, according to Little Limbago, are now engaging in a practice known as "cognitive hacking," the use of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google to persuade voters using propaganda.

While loose-knit groups of lone-wolf hacktivists didn't play a large role in the 2016 general election, they are involved with election meddling in places like the Philippines, where, according to Little Limbago, "a hacktivist group first attacked an election commission website." It released records of 55 million voter registrations, including biometric data, she said.

In the US, groups like Anonymous and Ghost Squad Hackers claim to care more about attacking corporations than the election. "We really do not care about attacking the US elections," said S1ege, the leader of Ghost Squad Hackers. "They've already been hacked. We mostly hack ISIS."

For more on how hackers may affect the upcoming midterm elections, read the full story on CBS News.

Campaign 2018: Election Hacking is a weekly series from CBS News and CNET about the cyberthreats and vulnerabilities of the 2018 midterm election .

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