Hacking the vote: why voting machine fraud should be the least of your worries
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A "Voter Registration" sign hangs near a table where residents fill out paperwork at a polling location during the presidential primary vote in Waukesha, Wisconsin, U.S., on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images Israel

A "Voter Registration" sign hangs near a table where residents fill out paperwork at a polling location during the presidential primary vote in Waukesha, Wisconsin, U.S., on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images Israel

If hackers are planning something, they’ve missed many chances to do so

For all the talk of voter fraud this US election cycle, documented cases have been few and far between. That does not diminish public fears of their occurring, or actual dangers to the process posed by hackers, both foreign and domestic.

Almost every US state, 48 out of 50, has requested assistance from the Department of Homeland Security in checking their systems ahead of Election Day, November 8.

With so many of the machines built by commercial contractors not required to disclose information about operating systems, including potential exploits, a lot of the potential problems that could arise are unknown outside a small circle of experts.

To date, though, hackers have apparently not gone and done what should be a relatively easy process: to rig an election by manipulating a voting machine. It is unclear why no one has bothered, even just as a prank or to affect a local contest. At least twenty states are known to have had hackers scan their voting systems, but scanning is of course not the act of hacking itself.

The chances of such hacks have been reduced in many jurisdictions as a result of more states adopting optical scanning or re-instituting paper balloting as a backup due to dissatisfaction with the electronic voting machines they bought after the 2000 Florida recount embarrassment. And without widespread electronic voting, an internet-based avenue of attack on most machines is closed off.

This, though, does not mean the technology is truly secure. Many older machines still lack basic security provisions such as randomized encryption, and voters can be hacked or have their information manipulated in other ways.

Most likely, though, is the expedient effort of going after campaign employees, the media, and our massive infotainment complex ahead of, on, and after Election Day to influence voters. This deliberate fanning of the public’s fears is potentially the most dangerous outcome, since it will proliferate life wildfire even in the absence of evidence.

Machines that just don’t work

Voting machines could be easily manipulated on site, or by inserting compromised code on the manufacturers’ end. But, access to them via the internet is not possible: “States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the internet,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Systems that could be accessed remotely have been removed from polling places, notes the Brennan Center for Justice, after problems were discovered between 2007 and 2015. And as Wired notes, none of the problematic machines discovered between those dates, a period that encompassed two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), were found to have been hacked to alter their results.

Without remote access, results on an individual machine could be altered by a voter or poll worker with the right equipment, available for cheap on the open market, and by putting air-gapped malware into the machine since older voting machines and their tabulation systems do not have encryption.

According to Symantec, which outlined the above techniques, remedying these problems would not be particularly expensive or difficult. Many of these machines are too obsolete to be modified for more complex functions. Their security protections may be weak due to age, but, there is ironically a silver living, according to Brookings’s Susan Hennessey. Speaking to a panel at Yale earlier this Fall, she noted, “Our terrible elections infrastructure might actually be in our favor; it’s very hard to hack the election given how old and decentralized these machines are.”

This is another area of concern altogether. But given the need to effectively coordinate a campaign against these systems at a statewide level, let alone across multiple states without tipping off the people present, the companies that handle the machines, and officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties, the returns would be low relative to the investment.

The paper trail from electronic machines would also have to be manipulated, and that accounts for about 80% of all of them in use since only 20% or so lack that mechanism.

There are easier, and cheaper, ways to “hack” an election.

More than one way to hack an election

Online voter registration is much more vulnerable to such actions. “Since December, hundreds of millions of voters in the U.S., the Philippines, Turkey and Mexico have had their data discovered on the web in unprotected form,” notes The Hill, with attacks against third party contractors in the US accounting for many of the breaches here.

These systems can also simply crash at the last minute, preventing people from signing up.

Although this could lead to instances of fraud where false names are given, and thus wrongly added to the electoral rolls, the most likely resulting problem would be the invalidating of legitimate sign-ups. This, in fact, is the sort of problem facing the State of Indiana last month with its voter registration website. Although people are not likely to be deleted, “the biggest concern would be for a hacker to change an address and request an absentee ballot,” even by just deliberately misspelling name and addresses.

Measures to address such worst-case scenarios are relatively simple, though. The Brennan Center outlines several, such as mandatory hardcopy backups, routine scans for abnormal traffic patterns or volume, and automatic transaction logs that mark down every single change made to a voter’s profile online.

Irregularities like these would still be detectable at polling places on voting days, though, and hard to actually conceal mass fraud with. The damage would be done, but the manipulation would probably be detected and remedied through the courts or recounts by hand.

So, directly changing the results through hacking, whether against the machines or the voter rolls, is a longshot. Real damage, though, could be done to destroy trust in the process itself with much less effort or fear or discovery.

Killing faith

Indeed, depending on who is doing the manipulation, that might be the end goal. That is to call into question the election’s legitimacy, undermining the result in a subtler way, rather than in favor of one specific winner or loser.

This was historically the case in election-rigging campaigns conducted by intelligence services such as the CIA or KGB. It is not that these influence campaigns are at an end, but there are new ways of going about them. The results are less certain, but linkages are much more easily denied. Today, for example, an authoritarian regime would derive propaganda benefits from secretly undermining another country’s elections to 1) open the winning candidates to trust deficits, 2) give the losers ammunition to use against those candidates to sow disunity, and 3) point to the ensuring mess whenever a domestic audience asks why they too cannot have regular elections or opposition parties.

This strategy can be accomplished by hacking into other systems that are part of the wider electoral process to broadcast results that don’t match the real ones. The US Intelligence Community is especially concerned in light of the number of electronic attacks on media organizations and individual journalists this election cycle that hackers may try to cause chaos by going after wire services to put fake results in their newsfeeds.

In Ukraine, this has already happened. In 2014, hackers went into the Central Election Commission’s website to declare that a far-right politician had won the presidency and otherwise keep the website from doing its job: displaying correct polling data. This did not change the result of the election. No votes were modified, annulled, or duplicated. Instead, the inconvenience and outright lies were spun to try and discredit the election itself. That dovetailed with efforts by outside parties to cast doubt on the validity of the results and exaggerate the strength of anti-Russian, pro-fascist, feelings in Ukraine.

Major DDoS attacks, like those that took place during Montenegro’s 2016 presidential election last month, could also be staged to keep people from accessing results. Twitter and Facebook, or poll aggregators and major news portals, would only need to be kept offline for a few hours, something that is doable even by non-state actors, to set the electorate on edge.

Such tactics are nothing new, though, and are sadly part and parcel of modern elections. There is often a grey line between actual voter suppression or questionable tactics that misrepresent the situation and overstate support for candidates online. However, there are clear red lines, and these have been crossed in many places. A Bloomberg Businessweek profile on election hackers for hire in Latin America found that while they were not fixing ballots, they were using a combination of disinformation, echo chambers, and hacking to shape the public mood.

One of the most common techniques is to break into an opponent’s website or voter registration database, take the contact information of supporters stored there, and then bombard these people with material. Some of it could be truthful, like embarrassingly candid emails and unflattering financial data, or outright lies and fake documents. Or even just obnoxious spam made to appear like it came from the candidate’s team, as happened in Mexico to some effect. The goal is not to promote a particular candidate, but to depress turnout for one or even depress turnout altogether, assuming it benefits the client to do that.

As a bonus, pinning responsibility on these actions is much harder than tracing, say, the person who resets the voting machine to give him or her multiple ballots for the same candidate. Especially if it was carried out by a foreign intelligence service through cutouts.

Attacks on these “soft targets” are dangerous primarily because it inflames existing grievances, mistrust, and conspiracy theories. It will just be more fuel to the fire even though these disruptions can be ironed out within hours, or days, at most.

Limits to e-voting

Could online voting remedy these concerns? No, not anytime soon. Online voting is not necessarily more secure than any other action you take on the internet, from paying bills to logging into your cloud.

Online voting is not so widespread in the US as other countries partly due to fears of privacy breaches and manipulation of results. The process is largely delegated to the states rather than the federal level, too. This meant to limit the prospect of interference at that level, though this also means the agencies handling the votes at the state level may lack the resources to organize a response in a crisis moment. For this reason, most machines still have a paper hardcopy.

The Department of Homeland Security, in fact, “does not recommend the adoption of online voting for elections at any level of government at this time.” Domestically, the only state that allows full web voting is Alaska, on account of its size and climate. Some states make exemptions in the event of inclement weather or for the handicapped in any circumstances. Otherwise, eighteen of fifty US states mandate balloting by hardcopy mail. The rest, including the District of Columbia, allow for either email, fax, or an official web portal, but mostly for people living abroad.

Purely electronic voting for citizens living overseas, including military personnel and their dependents, remains controversial, however. Despite the extensive research put into such an option, the US government concluded in 2014 that such it could not successfully implement such a system with existing security technologies. A 2010 test run for such a system in the District of Columbia showed that a massive breach and hijacking of the results could be effected in two days or less. This election cycle, problems with voting machines in some states, such as Texas, have been found, but not due to hackers’ actions and not without a paper solution as a backup.

Eliminating that backup to save money or “get with the times” would be unwise. As any system can be compromised, there should always be at least one alternative system to fall back on.

(Any US voter experiencing issues should inform their local polling place and also the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, or 1-866-687-8683.)

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