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Iran Behind Emails Posing as Proud Boys, Threatening Democrats to Vote for Trump

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Iran Behind Emails Posing as Proud Boys, Threatening Democrats to Vote for Trump

2020-10-22 11:41:15

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: John Ratcliffe (Image source: Public domain)

It had already been announced in August that Iran and Russia were trying to infiltrate the upcoming United States election. On Wednesday, it was announced that Iran had intercepted voter data and sent emails to Democrats posing as the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, threatening them to vote for Trump.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe made the announcement. It's the first known effort this year by a foreign adversary to infiltrate the election and undermine the confidence of specific voters.

At a news conference, Ratcliffe said both Iran and Russia had "obtained" voter registration information. The data could be used by foreign actors who are trying to "cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy."

But it was Iran that Ratcliffe called out specifically for using that data to send "spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump."

These fake emails claimed they were from the pro-Trump group the Proud Boys. Instead, they were the brainchild of someone working for the Iranian government, according to a United States official. It appeared it was an attempt to exploit a vulnerability in the group's online network.

The emails said that the group was "in possession of all your information." They instructed, "You will vote for Trump on Election Day, or we will come after you." The emails were sent to at least two states and possibly four. Three of the states are thought of as battleground states.

Local law enforcement and elections officials in Florida and Alaska were first to announce this foreign operation. It quickly escalated to the point of bringing in federal authorities, according to U.S officials.

Ratcliffe confirmed that Iran was distributing a video "that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas."

The Washington Post reviewed the video and noted it shows Trump slamming mail-in voting, then shows the Proud Boys logo. What comes next shows what appears to be voting data being hacked to create a fake ballot. The video was posted on a Twitter account that was later suspended.

"This video, and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots, are not true," said Ratcliffe at the news conference. "These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries."

The U.S. intelligence community's top counterintelligence official, William Evanina, announced back in August that "Iran seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections." He added that Iran's efforts probably would focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content."

Department of Homeland Security officials warned that state and local election administrators warned on a Wednesday call that a foreign government was responsible for the email assault, said U.S. officials and state and local authorities who were on the call. Authorities had detected holes in state and local election websites, according to a DHS official, and instructed those on the call to patch their online services.

Metadata was gathered from several emails. These were attached to servers in Saudi Arabia, Estonia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.

The domain that sent the emails is officialproudboys.com. This was recently dropped from use by a hosting company that uses Google Cloud services, according to Ted Ladd, a spokesman for Google Cloud. The domain was left vulnerable to being exploited because it didn't have a secure host. The voters that were affected were using email accounts on Comcast, Yahoo, and Gmail.

In addition to the emails that were received in Florida and Alaska, a Pennsylvania voter said she'd received an email as well, though she believes it reached her because of her previous registration in Alaska. Mark Shade, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, said it hadn't received reports about the messages.

The president and executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kristen Clarke, said her organization had received at least one report of a similar email reaching an Arizona voter.

The Arizona secretary of state's office spokeswoman, Sophia Solis, said the office was looking into it. She added that 104 complaints of similar emails were received after announcing it on social media. The Proofpoint research group said its analysis indicated one of the batches had more than 1,500 emails.

The chairman of the Proud Boys and the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, Enrique Tarrio, denied his group was involved and said the organization operates two sites and was increasingly moving away from the domain used by the fraudulent emails.

"Two weeks ago, I believe, we had Google Cloud services drop us from their platform, so then we initiated a URL transfer, which is still in process," he said. "We kind of just never used it."

The north-central Florida group, Democrats in Alachua County, started receiving the threatening messages on Tuesday morning, according to Art Forgey, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. Alaska voters experienced the same, according to the Alaska Democratic Party chair Casey Steinau.

While Trump continues to show mail-in balloting to be untrustworthy, federal law enforcement officials have pointed to the security of the process. It has been routine in some states for some time now. There have also been warnings of possible disinformation designed to look like fraud or stoke fears of voter intimidation. That in itself could keep voters away.

Tarrio has spoken to the FBI about the matter, not wanting it to be viewed as if his group was involved.

Bennett Ragan, the campaign manager for a Democratic State House candidate in Gainesville, Florida, said he received two threatening messages on his Gmail account. He also knows of at least 10 other similar emails that his friends or associates received.

He was able to narrow down that the data that was stolen of his was likely from a 2018 Florida voters' roll. He has moved often in recent years, and the home address shown had to be from that year.

"When you have people who have a voter roll and then send off emails, they will make a big splash," said Ragan. "They will scare people. That is without a doubt, the intent."

The server that previously hosted the Proud Boys domain canceled the registration after Google Cloud notified them that a nonprofit group had raised concerns about the organization, said Ladd.

The domain appears to have been left unsecured after it was dropped, allowing anyone to use it to send out the emails, said Trevor Davis, CEO of Counter Action, a Washington-based digital intelligence firm. 

Beginning on October 8, the lapse "likely made them vulnerable to this kind of hijacking," said Davis. "Bad actors are constantly scanning the Internet for opportunities. Given the public profile of the Proud Boys and the likelihood that whoever's sending these emails has access to a voter file, this appears to be opportunism."

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