It’s time for America to get its cyber- security act together — on many fronts. But beginning right now we need to start a serious discussion about how to keep the upcoming presidential election results safe and secure.
This needs to be a completely nonpartisan discussion that looks past a particular candidate’s shockingly premature prediction of a “rigged election” and goes further than whether voter ID cards are a good or bad idea.
This week we learned the FBI discovered foreign hackers had penetrated at least two states’ election databases, probably with an eye toward disrupting the November election. The cyber footprints left behind, reports say, point to Russian-based hackers. According to investigative reporter, Michael Isikoff, who broke this story, Arizona and Illinois were the targeted states.
Officials in Washington have apparently feared an infiltration of our election systems for a while. Last month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote to the FBI that, “The threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.” Reid asked the FBI director to fully investigate the matter – and now we know the Bureau is in the process of doing that.
At a symposium in Washington last week, FBI director James Comey said state-sponsored hackers from places like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea should be taken “very, very seriously” because they, “are getting much more sophisticated [and] much more aggressive” in their online activities.
In Arizona, hackers inserted malicious malware into the states computerized voter registration system. It doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that if that malware begins erasing or changing random voter’s information it would throw the entire Arizona election result in doubt.
In Illinois, the damage appears to be worse. The hackers apparently downloaded the personal data of some 200,000 voters. Imagine what a criminal mind might be able to do with that kind of information!
Just what cyber criminals might do to throw a monkey wrench into our electoral process isn’t clear. But what they can do is mind boggling. And what’s their motive? Is some foreign power trying to swing the election to Donald Trump? Or maybe to Hillary Clinton? Maybe they are simply trying to disrupt for disruption sake.
Imagine the potential vulnerabilities! Already 32 states and the District of Columbia allow some form of susceptible Internet based voting. Ballots can be sent in via e-mail, fax or an Internet portal which is used mainly by overseas and military voters. How long do you think it might take a sophisticated hacker – say, one who has already infiltrated our banks, corporations or U.S. government computers – to figure out how to manipulate those internet-assisted votes? Yeah, probably not very long.
And states across the nation have voting machines that are vulnerable to attack. The Department of Homeland Security has now communicated with election officials in all states and offered federal assistance to lessen the possibility of hacker attacks. Among the tips DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson offers: States should make sure voting machines are not connected to the Internet while voting is taking place. And for those states that don’t have a paper ballot backup for their voting machines — they are encouraged to do so.
Let’s hope every state takes heed and takes steps to lessen their vulnerabilities lest we be forced to endure another after-the-fact, chad counting-like spectacle like the one following the Bush-Gore race in 2000. Is there any doubt from anyone reading this that if the Clinton – Trump race is close there will be calls for a recount? There’s no reason to think the contentiousness of this election season will end after election day.
All this electronic, digital, Internet-based voting may be seen as progress but I long for the day when you showed up at your designated polling place and filled out a paper ballot. Yes, it took longer to count them all and come to a final tally but there was something comforting in the fact that you could go back and prove where the votes came from with no suspicion of outside hacking interference.
Since there is no going back we have to find a way to ensure that outside forces – be they foreign countries or opposing campaigns – cannot infiltrate states voting systems to manipulate the outcome.