What is Election Hacking?

cybersecurity and election hacking in the USA
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The world of technology is changing, and one rule that seems to be proving true is that creating a new cybersecurity solution may prompt inventive hackers to attempt to get around it. The data we hold most dearly draws the attention of those who create chaos for profit or power. Here we will discuss election hacking and its impacts. We will also cover what is being done to stop election hacking.

Hacking is absolutely a concern in the private sector, but in the past decade, it has become a growing concern for the public sector as well.

Governments work to protect personal data as well as private information that allows them to offer services to the public.

In particular, 2020’s upcoming United States presidential election has prompted a widespread shoring-up of cybersecurity surrounding voting systems in order to prevent Election Hacking.

What is Election Hacking?

Election Hacking is an umbrella term for efforts that use technology in order to actually change the results of an election in its most extreme form. Unfortunately, Election Hacking also includes efforts that undermine faith in democratic elections in a variety of ways other than changing the actual files containing election results.

Inventive hackers have discovered other, less-secure data that can be tampered with much more easily than the key election results files.

  • Election hacking includes using robotically-created advertisements, groups, and messages on social media to spread misinformation on a widespread scale in order to shake the confidence of voters or to sway them against particular candidates. An example was the documented work of Russian operatives who created Facebook groups and messaging that attempted to shake faith in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
  • Election hackers may access other sensitive information besides election results, such as registered voter data, and tamper with the data to create major delays and chaos at voting sites. Given that registered voters often have to provide their address to prove their identity, even swapping the addresses of voters can bring a polling place to a grinding halt.
  • Election hackers can also target and sabotage election results in a few key places so that the final call on a close race is determined by the precincts that were subject to an attack. Since many elections are down to a near-even split of votes, getting to 50.1% of the vote may be all it takes to throw an election.
  • Election hackers can throw doubt on the processes of particular local elections and use hacking to imply that a candidate is taking credit for a data breach or hack, discrediting that candidate even if he or she was not a party to the crime. This could be done, for instance, by posting false statements on a candidate’s official social media account.
  • Ransomware attacks, where malicious software is unleashed on a computer through suspicious phishing emails or other means, has been used to attack city governments already. It is considered possible that a ransomware attack could delay an election’s results or even allow unauthorized access to the results.

These efforts can be driven by radical actors in other countries who feel that the results of a particular election could benefit them in some way. It is believed that, in the years since the 2016 election, hackers in countries besides Russia have begun to test the defenses of various election systems, but none more so than the United States’ various datasets related to elections.

Domestic hacking can also occur, driven by the same reasons that other hacking occurs, either for profit in some way or because of the rush that access to privileged information and power can create. There can also be combination efforts, where domestic hackers can collaborate with outside forces.

How Can Hacking Affect Such Distributed Systems?

One of the major benefits, when it comes to United States election systems in particular, is that there are hundreds of different jurisdictions for voting, resulting in a wide variety of kinds of machines, paper ballots, and hybrid systems being used. Different kinds of election administration and hierarchy make it complex to know whose access is even needed to tamper with results, and of course, these election officials take seriously their need for security.

Hacking a system like the United States elections system would require a hacking operation with much more backing and motivation to hack such a varied system than it would take to hack a single centralized voting system.

However, as mentioned above, many election hackers aren’t aiming for actual election results modification, given the constantly moving target of breaking through many distinct, high-security systems.

They are aiming for strategic goals like calling into question the results of an election, possibly even blaming a particular candidate for rigging an election. In this case, they don’t even have to accomplish their goal in order to shake the public’s faith in the systems for voting; they simply have to make headlines for having attempted it in order to make local citizens worry. This is why cybersecurity’s invisible work of warding off election hackers is absolutely key.

Worries about hacking and tampering in the 2016 election have prompted much stronger security to be put in place for elections in 2018 and now in 2020. These have included systems that attempt to keep both a paper trail and an electronic record of election results for future cross-referencing. Boards of Elections use new technology that makes voting machines easier to use but also harder to tamper with, trying to stay one step ahead.

However, because systems like social media networks have also been co-opted in an attempt to influence public opinion with misinformation, cybersecurity experts must create solutions that offer stronger security and transparency on a variety of fronts, not simply on the transmission of election data.

What Is the Danger of Elections Being Compromised?

As mentioned before, much of election hacking throws the results of an election into doubt, rather than fully altering the results of the election. However, there are real threats that cybersecurity experts are working to prevent in the 2020 election. Understand these threats will help stop election hacking in the future.

Many races in the United States and around the world are closely contested.  Therefore, the scenario of a successful “election hack” wouldn’t be a cartoonish 100% of the vote going to the desired candidate. In areas where the difference in the winner and loser are only a few percentage points, a targeted and well-funded hacking effort could conceivably change the results.

It isn’t believed to have been the definitive cause of a particular election’s result at this point (though attempts have been made around the world), but the threat is highly credible and worthy of a robust, substantial response from the cybersecurity world.

What Is Being Done to Stop Election Hacking?

It is important to understand how to stop election hacking. So what is actually being done to stop election hacking? With the increased potential for various actors to attempt misinformation campaigns to “hack” the 2020 election, there have also been stepped-up efforts to avoid this outcome. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are taking increased measures to see cyber threats as credible parts of their mandates, producing greater strides and a more thorough strategy for preventing or thwarting these attacks. These best practices can be implemented slightly differently in each local election, which results in differing levels of security, but also is a helpful addition of complexity to thwart hackers.

CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, is also working to stop election hacking. They are coordinating multiple stakeholders in a targeted effort to protect the 2020 elections from tampering, recognizing that free and fair elections are part of the bedrock of both the United States’ democracy and of democracies around the world.

There are multiple fronts where this government response, alongside the responses of private-sector and non-profit security efforts, can be applied to stop election hacking. There are areas of public or semi-public discourse, such as social media networks, as well as the secure storage of data like voter registration information. There are also efforts being made to make paperless voting machines of all kinds both harder to hack and easier to audit.

Man holding smartphone and voting online, paperless voting to stop election hacking

Intelligence agencies are also part of the fight, learning more about the origins of various propaganda-laden advertisements and groups on social networks like Facebook. By disseminating more information about the interests and tactics of hackers, local election administrators can educate their own employees and their local electorate to be on the look-out for these efforts. Implementing new technology like digital burglar alarms that notify when unauthorized access has been attempted is another part of the intelligence solution. The more cybersecurity experts can learn about the ‘playbook’ of the hackers, the easier they are to stop.

Cybersecurity is on the front lines and is finding ways to stop election hacking, keeping the integrity of democratic elections above board. Option3Ventures, as a leading cybersecurity investing company, is finding the next major innovators in the cybersecurity space and helping them scale up their solutions in ways that can revolutionize the public sector as well as private-sector cybersecurity. We are working to improve measures to stop election hacking.

We’ve already achieved two successful exits, both of which are in the cybersecurity space making the networked world safer and more secure. Option3Ventures is also actively invested in three other companies that are creating innovation in the cybersecurity field during this all-important lead-up to the 2020 elections.

Ready to learn more about how Option3Ventures’ cybersecurity investing fund is fighting election hacking? Get to know us today.

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