Can the U.S. Elections Get Hacked?

Courtesy of Dsw4, © 2009

Courtesy of Dsw4, © 2009

When it comes to Election Day cyberattacks, illusion trumps reality. The perception of election rigging would more effectively undermine trust in the democratic process than an actual hack.

Russia stands accused of an unprecedented escalation of cyber activity and direct interference in the U.S. elections. Coincidental or not, a highly polarized society and increasing skepticism of major institutions is a huge PR win for the Kremlin. Moscow seeks to sow discord and distort collective grasp of the truth. The fact that a major party nominee openly questioned the validity of election results plays into and augments Russian influence operations to undermine trust in democratic institutions.

Based on an ongoing Russian disinformation campaign and information leaks, fears of potential cyberattacks on Election Day have prompted U.S. government officials to divert resources to ensure the security of election systems.

On a technical side, decentralization of the U.S. election system makes any hacking attempt challenging, but not impossible. Poll books let voters check-in to vote, which represents a risk factor in states where the books are digitized. If voter registration data were to be deleted from the roll, a high number of requests for provisional ballots would signal a potential problem with the system. Voting machines present an additional vulnerability, especially in states with no paper trails for audit.

While attribution presents a challenge and complicates efforts to identify and respond to a target, the case for Tuesday is simple. Dmitri Alperovich, from the cyber-security firm Crowdstrike, explains how pattern of attacks over an extended period of time facilitates attribution. He compares it to the difficulty of successfully executing a series of bank heists over multiple years. The identity of an actor that in any way interferes with the election process will become public knowledge.

Hacking the U.S. elections would then be counterproductive for an outside actor. Political campaigning against the government could provide a public relations advantage, and oftentimes fractured societies create narratives that the government fails to understand the plight of the populace. It is this disconnect between the government and the public that has given rise to populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. A cyber-attack on Election Day would put U.S. government officials and the anti-establishment wave on the same page. Instead of sowing discord, the move would serve to unify the U.S. electorate against a common adversary.

An argument could be made that while attempts at election fraud cannot change the outcome of the election, it can incite uncertainty and instability in the process. On a flip side, such attempts would provide an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of democratic institutions. Interference in the election process would not go unnoticed. Even if hackers were to carry out a cyber-attack targeting voting systems on Tuesday, officials would simply identify and address the discrepancies, whether that be administering a recount or recasting votes in certain jurisdictions.

Due to anxiety-inducing campaign rhetoric, the election process itself appears more vulnerable than it actually is. A heightened sensitivity has led to overplaying the possibility of a low-level interference that can have minimal impact on the election outcome.

The real danger is perception of reality. Dissemination of false reports using a vast array of online tools and targeted disruption of media outlets could cause significant chaos on Election Day. Consider tampering with the Associated Press and its ability to deliver accurate and timely election results to all the media outlets. An environment where the source and content of information come under question would further weaken voter confidence in the electoral process.  Consequently, a situation in which voters distrust the legitimacy of completely free and fair elections would be a win for the Kremlin.

A cyberattack is simply a tactic to achieve an objective. Russia can employ other, less intrusive ways of undermining the democratic process in the United States. Hacking the U.S. elections is not one of them. A targeted disinformation campaign is the real threat facing Washington.

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