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Frm. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff explains his Top 3 Nightmare Election Scenarios

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary & Chertoff Group Co-Founder Michael Chertoff joins Yahoo Finance's Akiko Fujita to discuss potential threats to the 2020 election.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Facebook and Twitter are facing backlash from conservatives after the social media platform scrambled to limit distribution of a "New York Post" article about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. That article points to unverified claims that Biden met with an advisor to the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, where his son was on the board.

Now platform saying that they took the action to slow the spread of potentially false information, with Twitter specifically saying that that was a violation of its hacked materials policy. And all of this reigniting Republican claims of censorship on social media with less than three weeks to go until the presidential election.

Let's bring in our next guest, Secretary Michael Chertoff. He is the co-founder and executive chairman of the Chertoff Group. He's also the former Secretary of Department of Homeland Security. And he joins us on the phone today.

Secretary, it is good to talk to you today. You've been looking at a number of scenarios that could sow chaos around the election. Disinformation on social media certainly one of them. I'd love to get your thoughts here on just news of the day, particularly as it relates to this "New York Post" article. Do you think Twitter and Facebook made the right call in trying to stem the distribution of this story?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Yes, so I haven't seen the story. And I don't know the facts, so I can't make a specific judgment. I do think the press will, in general, appropriately evaluate whether something has been fabricated particularly by a foreign actor, which is illegal, in my view, or is clearly misleading, for example, about how to vote, where to vote, or on issues like, you know, what the medical requirements are to stave off COVID.

I do think they have responsibility, and their terms of service make that clear. So I can't judge the individual case here. But I think the general principle is that they should police the content, and even more important, the identity and the genuineness of the identity of the people posting. I think that's appropriate.

AKIKO FUJITA: Do you think that the social media platforms have taken enough precautions here in the lead-up to election? I mean, the flipside here being that we've talked a lot about disinformation that's out there, what should be judged as disinformation, what exactly platforms like Facebook or Twitter should do.

When you look to the risks that could potentially play out in the lead up to November 3, and then after November 3, as it relates to the results, what is the biggest risk that social media platforms pose right now?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: So I would say that-- you know, I divide this into three categories-- actors, behavior, and content. So with respect to actors, I think it's clear there are high priorities to make sure people are not impersonating others on platforms, that people are not-- you know, foreign actors, like in Moscow or St. Petersburg, are not pretending to be Americans. And I think that's something clearly, when it gets identified and called out, ought to be shut down.

In terms of behavior, I think efforts to deliberately manipulate algorithms by, for example, using botnet to make it seem like a lot of people are liking something, or otherwise manipulating-- for example, you know forging things or putting what they call deep fakes online, which are basically artificially intelligence fabricated video and audio. I mean that's clearly, again, off limits. There's no First Amendment issue.

On the issue of content, that's the hardest issue because we do have a set of values in the United States that we don't censor content, except in very rare and specific cases, like child pornography or incitement to violence. But I do think labeling where content is misleading or incomplete can be a useful thing for your reader. And so I mean, that certainly seems to me to be a good way to balance between overly censoring, but also turning a blind eye to something that's destructive.

Finally I would say this. Anything that misleads people about, for example, how to vote, where to vote, when to vote, which has a direct operational effect on their ability to exercise their franchise, I think that ought to be taken down. Because that goes beyond opinion or even, you know, whether the facts are correct. And it gets into a direct effort to mislead somebody about exercising your franchise.

AKIKO FUJITA: I mean, that leads to the next question, which is, we've talked a lot about the potential for state actors to mislead. And we're talking about countries like Russia, given the experience from 2016.

But it does feel like in this election, there is an added element here because of the skepticism around the president's tweets, President Trump's campaign. I mean, when you weigh the risks here, what is the bigger risk? Is it an outside state actor, like Russia, like a China? Or is the threat from within?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, you know, honestly, it's getting really hard to tell. I mean, in many ways, we have domestic political actors who are basically doing Putin's work for him. All he has to do is sit back and amplify the content that's already been disseminated by domestic political figures. And you can guess who I'm referring to.

So in that sense, we are, in many ways, the authors of our own problem. And this is nothing new, because if you go back decades when the Soviet Union existed and they used to use disinformation campaigns, they used to like it when they could get Americans who were sympathizers, or, sometimes, so-called useful idiots, to put something out there. And then they would simply repeat it and say, look, this comes from an American.

So I do think the ability of foreign governments to amplify and more widely disseminate content creates a real risk. But to be honest, the actual fabrication of the contents, in many ways, is something that is a domestic effort.

AKIKO FUJITA: So walk me through some of your nightmare scenarios here. I mean, you have put forward concerns on cybersecurity, a potential attack, a ransomware attack on the election system. But it sounds like you're talking about an added element here with just confusion around what is real and what's not, with social media amplifying some of these messages.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think there are three buckets of things I worry about. One is the cyber attacks that would really gum up the works in terms of Election Day, either the registering of votes or the tabulation and counting.

So, for example, when people show up at the polls, and they want-- the poll workers want to check laptops to make sure that person is registered, if the database that they're looking to has been attacked with ransomware, and it's encrypted, and it's been shut down, there's going to be a significant delay and a real problem. They would have to take all provisional ballots, and that will really gum the workshop.

The good news is there's a solution. Create a duplicate dataset of all the registration data, keep it offline. If the primary dataset is infected, then go to plan B, or better yet, paper. Have a paper record that you can look to in order to check things.

The second thing I worry about is violence and interfere with people going to the polls on Election Day. And that could take the form of a cyber attack, for example, that shuts down a transportation system. But I think increasingly, we're getting concerned about the possibility of artificial armed groups deciding they want to appoint themselves as poll watchers and essentially intimidating people in certain areas to try to stop them from voting.

And I know, according to what I've been hearing and reading, many now of the cities and states understand they need to be prepared to meet with that, either by expanding the perimeter of the balloting area so that people can't get close and also by having law enforcement prepared to intervene. And as we saw in the case of Governor Whitmer, to have the FBI give a warning when they're seeing something that is risky.

And finally, the third thing we worry about is an effort to undermine confidence in the result because there will inevitably be some delays in counting. And if we have one of the candidates out there saying the election has been stolen, that could create a lot of skepticism and, again, maybe even some violent activity.

And that's why it's important to be very transparent and patient about the process. I am confident we can do this as we have done this in 1864 in the Civil War or during the Second World War or during the pandemic of 1918. But it does require that responsible officials and the media work together to be clear, open, and transparent, and to make sure that people can't generate unreasonable or misleading expectations.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let me just follow up on those two points that you made. You talked about concerns around violence and intimidation, as well as the effort to undermine confidence in the election. You can point directly to President Trump's comments that he's made, even in the most recent debate, calling on his supporters to go out and watch and keep an eye at the polls.

How do you, as somebody who's been working with a lot of these local agencies through the National Task Force on Election Crisis, how do you prepare for that when you've got the president of the US calling for those very things that you said you're concerned about?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think what they have to do, and I know, for example, they're doing this in Philadelphia, is they've been meeting and looking at potential scenarios. And I think, if I'm not mistaken, the DA, District Attorney of Philadelphia, said if people going in improperly attempt to intimidate or be present in the polling place, they're going to go to jail.

And I think if you get the police ready and the law enforcement authorities ready, and potentially even have people ready to go to court, you can react quickly when you start to see people gathering. For example, in Pennsylvania, my understanding is, if you want to be a poll watcher, you have to be registered in the county you want to poll watch in.

So if people start to try to come in from a different part of the state, they're just going to be turned away. Likewise, they attempted to have people, quote, "poll watch" at ballot dropboxes, and the authorities said, no, you can't do that, and required them to leave. And apparently, that's been upheld by the courts.

So this is about, as with any other crises, having a plan, having your equipment and your capability, and then reacting quickly when you start to see a problem arise.

AKIKO FUJITA: Secretary Michael Chertoff, always good to talk to you. Appreciate your time today.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be on, thanks.