North Dakota governor, others warn: Beware of disinformation related to coronavirus

Gov. Burgum pointed out a fake chart – one that appeared on social media in North Dakota – that was designed to spread fear about coronavirus and COVID-19.

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This is a Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracking map, which a bad actor's malware virus is said to resemble. If opened, the false map (but not the one from Johns Hopkins) can infect a computer with malware.

Despite toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other essentials flying off the shelves, perhaps the most valuable commodity in the unfolding coronavirus crisis – and something Kevin Ford holds dear – is clear, accurate information about the pandemic.

Ford is North Dakota’s chief information security officer, and offered an interview to the Herald during which he spoke at length about where North Dakotans should turn for information. There are a lot of bad actors – and a lot of bad information – out there, he said, from social media chatter to people exploiting the pandemic. He stresses that it’s important to stay close to expert sources who are in the know.

“I can confirm for you that there are both criminal organizations and what we call advanced persistent threats, which are other countries that are maybe not friendly to the USA, that are trying to capitalize on the coronavirus in cyberspace,” Ford said. “Focus on the primary sources, focus on the very legitimate websites.”

Among Ford’s top places to check for updates are:

  • (Centers for Disease Control)

  • (World Health Organization)

  • (North Dakota Department of Health)

"We encourage people to seek out facts, not fear," Gov. Doug Burgum said at a press conference earlier this month, citing many of the same sources that Ford later did. He cited a false map, fashioned to look like a coronavirus tracker created by Johns Hopkins University, that was “actually placed by a foreign national to try to drive more fear in our country."
That map appeared on social media in the Red River Valley, for instance.


Burgum and Ford’s advice is all the more important as rumors and bad information swirl about the pandemic and pending government responses. One reported rumor , quickly debunked by the National Security Council, has been that President Donald Trump would invoke existing federal law and force a mandatory quarantine. The New York Police Department had to announce on Twitter – emphatically, in all caps – that it had no plans, as of March 12, to shut down the metro subway system.

And Ford points out that there are plenty of “phishing” attempts – a process by which bad actors mimic an otherwise trustworthy website or a friend to try to get people to share sensitive information over the internet.

“If someone is asking for personal information, or money online, and you know them, call them to make sure that it’s them,” Ford said.

It’s also important, Ford said, to be careful with people asking for information online – and to safeguard bank accounts and other information with multi-factor authentication. That’s a set-up by which a website might ask for both a password and a code texted to a personal cellphone, for example, before a user can log in.

“We’re also seeing this disinformation used to fuel attacks, to get people to give them money,” Ford said. He mentioned the Johns Hopkins false coronavirus map in particular: “What it actually did was, it downloaded malware in the background while you were using it … and once it did that, they could do all sorts of malicious things, including a ransomware attack, which is where they more or less lock all the information on your computer until you pay a ransom.”

Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for the state’s information technology department, pointed out that journalists are also performing a valuable service.

“Our local reporters … obviously are reaching 700-and-some thousand North Dakotans … asking good questions during a time of uncertainty,” she said. “The important nature of news and the legitimate sources that Kevin (Ford) is talking about are so critical, and especially when there are so many facets are important to that story.”

Ford also addressed a growing resource that North Dakotans are coming to rely on: social media. On Facebook, a community support group for the spread of COVID-19 has more than 6,300 members; and though much of the chatter is well-intentioned, Ford urges caution.


“Think about, as a kid, playing telephone tag when someone would whisper something in the first person’s ear that would go down the line, and it would come out as something completely different at the end of the line,” he said. “That’s kind of what happens a lot in those groups. And so they’re just rife with misinformation. So take everything you see in those groups with a large grain of salt.”

As a public service, this article has been opened for everyone to read regardless of subscription status.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announces the closure of all schools in the state due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus at a press conference in Bismarck on Sunday, March 15. Joining him behind the podium are state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler (far right) and a sign language interpreter. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

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