President Donald Trump has said China is interfering with the November midterm elections, but the findings of top cybersecurity firms are casting doubt on his claims.
“We haven’t observed any evidence of Chinese targeting the midterms or anything that would be relevant to upcoming elections,” said Luke McNamara, a principal intelligence analyst at the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc., which works with some state and local authorities to monitor election threats.
Jon DiMaggio, a senior threat intelligence analyst at Symantec Corp., which studies threats to campaigns, candidates, states, and on social media, said he’s observed “no digital trail of breadcrumbs that is leading back to China.”
Identifying nation-state hackers is complex, and the analysts agree that there may be some they haven’t detected. But the firms’ common finding of no evidence raises fresh questions about Trump’s assertions.
Trump’s claim — that China is pursuing a campaign to interfere in the election and damage his administration — is putting extra strain on an already fraught relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
Beijing and Washington are currently locked in an escalating trade conflict, and earlier this month, U.S. and Chinese warships nearly collided in the South China Sea, where both nations are seeking to assert their regional dominance.
The Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Office of Director of National Intelligence warned Friday that nations including China were engaged in “ongoing campaigns” to “undermine confidence” and influence policy and opinion in the U.S.
The administration hasn’t provided evidence to back up the allegations.
Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer at Crowdstrike Inc., which works with states and municipalities to look for intrusions, said of China, “we haven’t seen any activity in cyberspace from them that’s election related, but there could be something outside of it,” such as conventional election-related propaganda.
Chris Krebs, a DHS under secretary, told reporters Friday that the threat involved “media manipulation.” Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both cited a paid advertising supplement the Chinese government placed in the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, criticizing the administration’s trade policies.
The accusations have been building since last month, when Trump told the United Nations Security Council that “China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration.”
Pence followed up with a speech this month, saying: “There can be no doubt: China is meddling in America’s democracy.” Pence characterized Beijing’s behavior as “an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.”