The United States has made “tremendous progress” in the effort, Mr. Krebs added, by “getting on this problem early.”
Still, some officials worry that President Trump’s repeated assertion about the election that “we’re not going to lose this except if they cheat” may be the 2020 equivalent of “Russia, if you’re listening” — seen as a signal to hackers to create just enough incidents to bolster his unfounded claims of widespread fraud.
So far Mr. Trump has focused on mail-in ballots and new balloting systems, but on election night there would be no faster way to create turmoil than altering the reporting of the vote — even if the vote itself was free of fraud.
That would be a classic perception hack: If Mr. Trump was erroneously declared a winner, for example, and then the vote totals appeared to change, it would be easy to claim someone was fiddling with the numbers.
The Russians tried this, and almost got away with it, in Ukraine’s presidential election six years ago. That is one reason the F.B.I. warned last week that the days after the election could result in “disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”
The F.B.I. warning made no mention of Mr. Trump’s own declarations that if Mr. Biden wins, the election must be illegitimate, or his baseless attacks on the use of mail-in ballots. But on Saturday night at a rally in Pennsylvania, the president openly speculated how an uncertain outcome could throw the election into the courts or Congress, both places where he believes he has an advantage.
That is why the surge in ransomware has become such a rising concern. Should an attack be well-timed enough to make it difficult to count votes or certify tallies, it would add to the uncertainty — just what the Russians, and perhaps Mr. Trump himself, are seeking.