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Hack the vote: Experts say the risk is real

Taylor Armerding | Sept. 9, 2016
Security experts say there is no evidence that hackers have tampered with votes in US elections. But they say the risk is very real, in large part because it is so easy

Schneier and Clarke say they are not aware of cyber attacks in previous elections that changed the results. But Schneier noted that uncertainty about the credibility of election results could cause major political problems.

An election, he said, has two main purposes. “One is to pick the winner, the other is to convince the loser that he lost, fairly,” he said. “And if you don’t do the second, you risk the transition of power. So even if nothing happened, let’s say Wednesday morning someone said, ‘I hacked the vote.’ We can’t prove it, we can’t disprove it. We don’t know.”

And Tom Patterson, chief trust officer at Unisys, said hackers could undermine the credibility of elections without directly tampering with vote totals. “They include simple denial of service – blocking citizens from voting – to privacy breaches,” he said.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed. “Many of us are much more worried about attacks that don't seek to flip votes but instead disrupt elections or cause chaos in general,” he said.

“For example, an attack that selectively dropped entries from a voter registration database based on party affiliation would cause all of those voters to be considered unregistered, so even their provisional votes would be unlikely to count without consulting backups of the database.”

Indeed, just this week the Washington Post reported that US intelligence and law enforcement officials are probing what they believe is a major covert Russian operation in the US, not necessarily to tamper with actual voting, but to "so public distrust" in the results.

An unnamed official was quoted saying that, “even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern. It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.”

Many of us are much more worried about attacks that don't seek to flip votes but instead disrupt elections or cause chaos in general.

joseph lorenzo hall

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist, the Center for Democracy and Technology

It is widely known, of course, that there have been multiple hacks of organizations connected to the impending election – Schneier noted that they include the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Other cases are suspicious but less certain. “Certainly we’ve seen candidates’ websites go down the night before an election, we’ve seen Get out the Vote campaign web sites and coordination systems fail,” Schneier said. “Is it a glitch or enemy action? We don’t know.”

But all that, along with a recent “flash” alert from the FBI’s Cyber Division that foreign hackers penetrated two state election databases (Arizona and Illinois), has drawn attention at the top levels of government. President Obama made an issue of it in his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called the potential of Russian interference in the election a serious threat that should be confronted immediately.


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