Cyber Threats Make Election Officials & Party Operatives Nervous

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 7, 2016

After more than 18 months of nasty name-calling, accusations, and general mud-slinging, the US Presidential election is at hand. Election officials and operatives are worried that the outcome, predicted to be close, could be affected by interfering cyber criminals. Shady tactics such as casting multiple votes, using dead people’s names to vote, and the like, are almost as old as the US elections. But with the growth of the web, the opportunities for mischief and the potential impact of cyber threats are greater.

The world has had a taste of that with the recent WikiLeaks hacks into the Democratic Party’s apparatus. State-sponsored actors, namely the Russians, are blamed for the hacks in the run-up to the election. The fear now is that these alleged cyber criminals may get involved in the actual voting process, raising both the ante, and the level of worry.

Voter fraud is nothing new, and both major parties are guilty of it. They act like it is par for the course and that voter fraud is almost an accepted tactic in elections. Vote rigging and manipulation have previously depended on human interaction, and are grudgingly accepted as part of a candidate’s “ground-game” on Election Day.

It is almost admired and considered an attribute – a demonstration of a candidate’s guile and ability to plan, organize and, thus, lead the nation. Tainted presidential elections in the US go back more than 200 years and involve legendary political luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson.

The 1876 Presidential Election, for instance, is arguably the most controversial example of election- rigging and manipulation. Though Samuel Tilden of New York garnered more popular votes, neither Tilden, the Democrat, nor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, the Republican, achieved the necessary plurality in the all-important Electoral College vote.

Hence, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which selected Hayes after many back-room machinations, which included the Republicans agreeing to the withdrawal of all federal troops from the South. Before the mischief that ultimately decided the election, armed militias threatened to do damage unless Tilden, the winner of more than 50% of the popular vote, was installed. Extreme violence never ensued because of the brokered agreement, which came to be called The Compromise of 1877.

In later years, more traditional methods of arm-twisting and vote-rigging routinely took place. These often included organized crime goons delivering the vote on Election Day. But using manpower had its limitations. Utilizing cyberspace to affect the outcome is a whole different ballgame, and presents myriad challenges for election officials.

Cyber Threats and the US Election

Even if there is nothing that appears to affect a single vote, just the threat of a cyberattack creates fear and doubt enough to tarnish the process. It need not be an overt attack or theft of votes either. A simple internet outage, for example, could make it difficult for voters to find their assigned polling place.

“If you can make us question one district in any of  the battleground states, especially with Trump’s rhetoric calling the election rigged, that will certainly go a long way towards causing chaos and disruption,” said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at security firm Crowdstrike.

There has been widespread speculation that the Russians are again flexing their cyber muscles.  “We’ve been comparing what we’re seeing today to what happened in Ukraine over the last two years. The individuals are certainly using the same playbook,” Meyer added.

Fears have been amplified by Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who on the one hand warns that the election is “rigged,” while famously calling upon Russia to hack into Democratic nominee Clinton’s emails in July. Though he later said he was only being sarcastic. Election officials, while privately worried, for public consumption point out that the overall voting process is so offline and so decentralized, that cyber-interference would not alter the outcome. Regardless, you can be sure that cyber security in elections will be a major topic of debate in the coming years.

Defence Against Cyber Threats

Meanwhile, the threat is being taken more seriously in some quarters. Federal and state law enforcement officials, party operatives, and cyber-security professionals, are preparing to intervene, track, and hopefully block anyone attempting a cyberattack aimed at destabilizing the election.  And in deference to the possibility of cyber-foul-play, the Department of Homeland Security has been conducting cyber audits of state and local election systems since August, responding to requests from 46 states and 32 local election officials.

Moreover, a rapid-response team comprised of cyber security, cryptography, and computer network security hotshots will be available on Tuesday to assist authorities if cyber issues arise.  The group is dispersed among the electorate across the country. Some of the top names in the fast-growing field of election cyber-verification and security are represented.

In the meantime, if you are afforded the privilege of voting, get off the couch and participate – despite what may be a lack of enthusiasm for your choices. After all, there are still numerous other races on the ballot to consider, where your vote may make more of an impact. I hope your candidate(s) win.

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