SAN FRANCISCO — 2024 could turn out to be the year in which artificial intelligence upends the U.S. election, but at America’s largest cybersecurity conference, federal officials charged with protecting the vote said they are most concerned with a far more analog threat: physical violence directed at election administrators. 

While many election officials are concerned about issues of disinformation — both AI-generated and not — physical security threats on or around Election Day to polling places, ballot counting centers and locations where equipment is stored are top of mind. 

“That’s where we’ve concentrated a lot of our efforts this year,” Brandon Wales, executive director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told reporters at the RSA Conference.

U.S. election officials are already facing a tsunami of physical threats, harassment, doxing and swatting attacks — in which police are called to a person’s residence on phony pretenses — and the risk of violence is only exacerbated by persistent and false online narratives that American elections are in one way or another rigged, experts caution. 

“We’re already hearing from election officials and rank-and-file bureaucrats who have been executing elections for decades that they’re getting bricks thrown through their windows,” said Lisa Kaplan, founder of the Alethea Group, a firm that studies disinformation. “There is real-world harm to these types of narratives.

Against this backdrop, CISA officials say they are stepping up their assistance to state and local election administrators. Since the beginning of last year, the agency has conducted 300 cybersecurity assessments, 470 physical security assessments, held dozens of tabletop exercises, trained at least 9,000 election stakeholders, given out 230 security clearances and held a number of classified briefings, CISA Director Jen Easterly told reporters on the sidelines of RSA. 

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