When Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump said he hoped the Russian government had found Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails, he wasn’t just taking a swipe at his opponent. He highlighted a very real and present danger to our democracy.
While social media users were atwitter about whether or not The Donald had committed treason—for the record, he didn’t—I don’t know if his quasi-seditious braggadocio reveals anything about his loyalty to the country he hopes to represent at home and abroad. Personally, it made me wonder about his fitness to lead a nation daily engaged in cyber military operations that almost certainly make the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program look like Day One.
And far more importantly, it made me question whether Trump understands just how serious the threat of hacking is — and that such a lack of understanding could cost him the election.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher
We now have fresh evidence that suggests Russia (its leader, an apparent fan of the Republican nominee) hacked the DNC, and that another incursion into the computer systems used by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign (as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) discovered days later also appeared to be the work of a Russian government agency, according to The New York Times.
If the idea of a foreign country influencing the outcome of the 2016 race is both slightly terrifying and gets your patriotic juices flowing, consider that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has also suggested he intends to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, also according to the Times.
The problem of hacking with regard to this election, however, is far from contained to espionage for advantage and the caprices of self-proclaimed moral crusaders.
Here are five other ways hacking could influence the election.
1. Hacker Fraud
Currently 25 states accommodate voters who qualify to cast a ballot through either a website or via email. And then there’s online voter registration. Each of these conveniences carries with it the potential for subversion and exploitation.
It’s also worth noting that our most sacred right in this nation does not enjoy protection from Homeland Security. Each state runs its own voting, and cyber security competence is something that varies greatly from state to state.
2. Rigged Voting Machines
Not all states “airgap” their voting machines. Airgapping means the machines are never connected to the Internet, and thus are much harder to compromise.
While there isn’t anything precluding a hacker from attempting to rig a machine one way or another, an article on the left-leaning CounterPunch site, argued that the states where machines are most vulnerable to compromise lean anti-Clinton.
3. Registration Information
When Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center earlier this year lost access to crucial files to hackers, they had to pay a ransom of $17,000. What happens if a similar attack on a state’s voter information is successful? Here too, Homeland Security has no oversight, and state cyber security protocols vary widely.
4. Campaign Data
As Julian Assange has clearly demonstrated, the incredibly rich, granular and varied personal information that political campaigns collect to better target potential voters is not sufficiently protected from outside malefactors.
5. Voter Suppression
One thing that hackers do particularly well is spam, and doubtless there are numerous email lists that target particular demographics in crucial voting districts. All that needs to happen here is a little misinformation: maybe the spam says your polling station is closed, or due to a terrorist threat there may be delays. It doesn’t take much to discourage potential voters.
Is This a Job for Homeland Security?
With both candidates receiving daily intelligence briefings, it seems like a good time to wonder out loud about the security of that information, since strategies and messaging based on it will almost certainly be emailed among campaign staff and stored on campaign servers.
While there is wisdom in the states controlling their own voting systems that finds its origins in our Constitution, there is also a new threat out there. And while I’m not sure it makes sense to put voting under the control of a federal entity, it might benefit from greater oversight.
As Stewart Baker, a former top guy at Homeland Security and the National Security Administration said recently regarding the cyber threat in this election: “It’s hanging chads weaponized.”