Top Six Ways Hackers Could Disrupt an Election

If foreign governments can hack into U.S. government and defense systems, why would anyone think that foreign interests couldn't also hack into U.S. elections? It's important that we start talking about these risks because a "hack attack" could happen sooner than we think.
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Young male thief stealing data from computer
Young male thief stealing data from computer

Could hackers swing a U.S. election?

With the 2016 presidential race already well underway, it's time for us to take cyber threats to our electoral process much more seriously. Over the years, a number of security researchers, 'ethical hackers' and government agencies have warned about the risks, but little has been done to prevent these attacks.

Hacking just a few electoral districts could allow an attacker to swing an election in a close race. The U.S. has had close elections multiple times in the past. In 1960, John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon by just 0.1%. In the 2000 presidential election, the decision came down to just a few votes in Florida. In the end, the Supreme Court had to determine the winner.

The election system is particularly vulnerable because it involves a combination of state, local, and federal government agencies with their own systems, software, hardware, and security protocols. Often, government departments are running old "legacy" computer systems that are extremely vulnerable to malware and hacking; and even if they have new systems, these are often put into place without a comprehensive security audit and performance review.

Who exactly is in charge of securing these overlapping networks isn't always clear in government either. These agencies typically face tight controls on their budgets which make it difficult to spend on needed security controls. Government departments also have a lot of publicly accessible systems, like electronic voting machines, that give access to bad actors.

Also consider this:

  • According to Verizon's 2015 Data Breach Investigations report, the public sector has the highest rate of "crimeware" infections of any industry sector
  • The Federal Election Commission's (FEC) campaign finance disclosure system was knocked offline by hackers in 2013 - and last month, a new government report found that the FEC still failed to implement basic security measures to prevent it from happening again
  • The Argonne National Laboratory conducted a security review of electronic voting machines in 2012 and found that many widely used models were trivially easy to hack, potentially allowing for votes to be changed
  • Virginia just banned touchscreen voting machines due to serious concerns about how easily they can be hacked

There are a variety of ways hackers could disrupt an election, but here are the top six biggest risks:

  1. Hack a voting machine - The most obvious way to interfere with an election, of course, is by changing votes on an electronic voting machine. There are a number of ways this can be done, such as attacking the network the machines are being run on at a voting precinct, physically tampering with the device or the network hardware to install malware, attacking the voting machine company's network or employees to get malware into the devices or steal passwords before they are released to a government and target the back-end government network used to manage them. Hackers could also simply scan a government-run network to look for connected machines with default passwords.
  2. Shut down the voting system or election agencies - Similarly, hackers could use a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack to disable voting machines or the back-end servers in order to deny access to voters. They could also launch DDoS attacks against local, state, and federal election agencies at key moments to disrupt voter registration, notification of voting precinct times and locations, record management, or coordination between agencies.
  3. Delete or change election records - If you can breach a network, you can do almost anything you want to the data. Most of the time, we hear about hackers stealing or exfiltrating information - like the case of employee records at OPM. However, hackers could do something far worse - they could delete important data records, change the data or insert fake records. This would be particularly disastrous with election agencies. Imagine a hacker deleting voter registration forms to prevent people from voting, adding to the list of prohibited voters (like convicted felons), or switching a person's party affiliation to block him/her from voting in the proper primary. Or deleting a politician's filed paperwork, putting his/her candidacy in jeopardy.
  4. Hijack a candidate's website - Political campaigns often have lax cybersecurity, which, combined with a high rate of personnel churn and dependency on volunteer staff, makes it easy for hackers to infiltrate candidates' websites. There are a lot of ways a hacker could target a campaign website, such as DDoS'ing the site to deny access, installing malware to infect all visitors, or hijacking the Domain Name System (DNS) to redirect visitors to the wrong site which could expose them to malware or something offensive like pornography. In many cases, this would be more in line with harassment than a serious threat, but imagine how disruptive it would be to a candidate's campaign if he/she were forced to deal with technical issues constantly?
  5. Doxing a candidate - Hackers could also take "mudslinging" to a whole new level by breaking into the candidate's, or her staff's, private email accounts, smartphones, computers and any files or databases they've created in order to uncover sensitive and private information (as well as photos, videos, audio recordings) which could be publicly disclosed in order to damage the candidate. This practice of finding and revealing sensitive personal details is known as "doxing" in the hacker community, and it could be used to great effect in close elections. Attackers could also hijack social media accounts and post inaccurate or embarrassing information.
  6. Target campaign donors - There are also a lot of ways hackers could derail campaign fundraising. For example, since campaign contributions are public records, it would be easy for hackers to target commercial donors with DDoS and other attacks in order to discourage others from donating. They could also use SQL injection attacks on campaign websites to steal the credit card numbers of donors in order to harass them more directly, as well as engage in identity theft and financial fraud. But hackers wouldn't even have to go this far to affect a candidate's fundraising ability - simply announcing publicly that they planned to hack supporters might be enough to dissuade potential donors.

If foreign governments can hack into U.S. government and defense systems, why would anyone think that foreign interests couldn't also hack into U.S. elections? It's important that we start talking about these risks because a "hack attack" could happen sooner than we think. Fixing this won't be easy which is why we need to start preparing/safeguarding now!

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