Hacking the US election

by George Engels

The 2016 US presidential race has seen its fair share of firsts: the first female presidential nominee, and the first presidential nominee with no prior public office experience, to name the obvious.

It is also the first time a foreign power has directly meddled in an US presidential election.

In a joint statement issued in early October, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence took the unprecedented action of accusing the Russian government of orchestrating:

“The recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations… These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process… We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

The statement continues: “Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.”

The news is particularly troubling for US officials given the antiquated state of America’s voting machines.

Lack of funding and a dearth of political will have conspired to leave the “majority of machines in use today either perilously close” or exceeding their lifespan, according to a 2015 report published by The Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ).

According to the report, the voting machines’ near obsolescence “biggest risk is increased failures and crashes, which can lead to long lines and lost votes. Older machines can also have serious security and reliability flaws that are unacceptable today.”

Lawrence Norden, Deputy Director of the BCJ’s Democracy Program and co-author of the report, said in an exclusive interview with City Global News:

“There is the potential for a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS), not on the voting machines themselves, but on other parts of the election system infrastructure. That could be an attack on an election website that provides information for where people need to vote, and answer questions for people before they show up to vote. Potentially, an attack could happen on electronic poll books,” where voter information is stored.

Pamela Smith, president of the non-partisan, non-profit Verified Voting, explained in an exclusive interview with City Global News how disruptive a cyber attack could be: “A DDoS attack would mean that poll books could not be updated in real time, and would likely require going to a paper back up of the voter rolls, necessitating a change in procedures for poll workers, and possible long lines, at least for a time.

Another possibility would be disrupting the information services that have become so crucial for voters – finding out where their polling place are, or what they need to bring with them to the polling place, and so on. Most of that information is obtained through the Internet, so not being able to get at it would be a problem.”

Both Professor Norden and Ms Smith agree that voters’ confidence is the biggest issue at stake in the case of a cyber attack.

Ms Smith said: “Probably the greatest danger at this time is not that votes would be changed so much as that there could be disruption of the process, to cast doubt on it.

Election officials, poll workers, voters and volunteers all pull together to ensure elections work as they should; this year, cyber security awareness has been elevated across the country, and nearly all states have availed themselves of the resources provided by the Department of Homeland Security to aid with vulnerability scans, cyber risk assessments, and help protect electoral systems. That’s unprecedented.

But unfortunately, with advance discussion of ‘rigging’ some voters already have doubts. That could be exacerbated by any kind of attack happening on Election Day.”

Professor Norden seems to agree: “I am not concerned about vote totals changing. I am moderately concerned, given the combination of talk of “rigged” elections and reports of foreign interference in the election, that somebody may attempt to do things to undermine voters’ confidence.”

When asked whether he thought a crisis in voters’ confidence could compromise the integrity of the election, Professor Norden replied:

“Democracy is fragile, more fragile than people probably realise. We are in a hyper partisan, fraught environment in this election, far more than, I think, than we were in the year 2000. I would be concerned about how, if we had a similar situation, things would be for the country. I hope my words are not prophetic.

The good news is that hopefully we won’t have such a close election and we don’t have punch holes machines any longer that left things so ambiguous as in 2000. But I do think that the kind of rhetoric that we’ve seen around this election is damaging. Hopefully, we’ll escape unscathed. But that for sure is my biggest concern.”

Whether or not Russia will be willing to engage in such risky behaviour is still a hotly contested matter. “Putin’s not very nice, but he’s not stupid,” said Ryan Maness in an interview for Wired.

Professor Maness, a visiting fellow at Northeastern University who specializes in international cyber conflict and Russian foreign policy, continued: “If they were going to mess with the voting machines and the vote-counting software, they wouldn’t have done the DNC hack.”

One thing that is clear, though, is that US election and intelligence officials are scrambling to make the best out of a bad situation. But given the vulnerable state of America’s voting machines, the question remains: could it be too little, too late?

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