Could computer hackers disrupt the US election? It’s happened in other countries.
Hackers have targeted elections in Mexico, Canada, Russia, and South Korea. Experts warn that it could happen in the US, causing temporary disruptions and perhaps delaying election results.
Will the US need to defend its right to vote from Internet hackers on Tuesday? If the experience of neighboring countries is any indication, the answer could be “yes.”Skip to next paragraph
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Already this year, Mexico and the Dominican Republic have both fended off cyberattacks on their national elections by the hacktivist group Anonymous. In Canada in March, the National Democratic Party had its party elections disrupted. Cyberattacks in the past year have also hit national elections in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea.
To be sure, such attacks do not necessarily translate to the US election system. For all its flaws, US states still rely primarily on voting systems that utilize paper ballots or other paper backup systems that can be re-counted or audited to confirm votes. Yet the threat of even a temporary disruption or manipulation of electoral websites run by county and state officials if it affects perceptions of the vote outcome – even if it did not affect the actual results – remains a worry, cybersecurity experts warn.
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Last year a video appeared on YouTube claiming that Anonymous would target this year's presidential primaries and possibly the election itself. While some quickly dubbed the video a hoax, cybersecurity professionals aren't immediately dismissing the threat.
"These [hacker] attacks on elections are becoming quite an epidemic actually," says Carlos Morales, vice president of Global Sales Engineering and Operations for Arbor Networks, whose team worked with the Mexican Instituto Federal Electoral to soften the blow from attacking hacktivists.
During Mexico's federal election, hackers claiming to be part of the Anonymous online collective bombarded the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) website that tallies votes with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack – which shoots data from myriad computers to make it hard to block the attempt to clog the Internet pipes at the target site.
Not only that, faked images were planted that appeared to show vote tallies being manipulated. In the Dominican Republic, the hacktivist group Anonymous Dominicana threatened a DDoS attack on Junta Central Electoral, the central election authority to disrupt the vote count and cast doubt on the validity of the election.
In both cases, the hacktivists failed mainly because both nations took action ahead of the vote to put in place systems that could deal with the electronic bombardment.
"Attacked, yes; damaged or disabled, not at all," said René Miranda, IFE’s chief information officer, as reported in a Mexican cybersecurity magazine.
One wild card in the United States, however, that could be directly affected by DDoS style attacks – the simplest, cheapest, and most anonymous kind of attack – is the rise of Internet-based voting. At present, some 32 states make online voting available to some 3 million registered voters, including military personnel and citizens abroad, according to the Carlsbad, Calif.-based group Verified Voting, which tracks voting technology.