Last week, amidst the release of Donald Trump’s infamous videotape and a batch of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, the U.S. government claimed that the Russians are behind the election hacks.
Intended to interfere with election
In a joint statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that the leaked emails “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities. — Statement from ODNI and DHS
In other words, the man behind the leaked emails is none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has been debating for some time whether to accuse Russia of the cyber-attacks and did so only after back channel warnings were met with no success.
There is concern that blaming the Russians has domestic political overtones as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has attacked Donald Trump for being too friendly with Russian President Putin. Most of the hacked emails over recent months have proved to be more embarrassing to Democrats in general, and Mrs. Clinton in particular, than to Republicans.
A group of emails hacked from the DNC and released last summer forced the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz after emails revealed that the DNC was favoring Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders. There have also been leaks of Clinton campaign staff emails, and emails of Clinton while she was serving as Secretary of State and using a private email server.
Cyber hygiene scans
While the release of embarrassing emails generates the most public interest, a deeper fear is that hackers could directly affect the outcome of an election by using cyberattacks to access online voting records and ballots. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson floated a suggestion last summer that the federal government declare election systems to be ‘critical infrastructure,’ and brought under federal control. That proposal drew a negative response from both Republicans, who feared the Obama administration was trying to take over the election, and from state election officials who felt that managing elections is a state function, not a federal one. As an alternative, DHS offered to provide technical support services to local election officials to ensure that their systems are safe.
To date, 33 state and 11 county or local election agencies have approached the Department of Homeland Security about our cybersecurity services. With 29 days to go before the November 8 election, we encourage other election agencies to do the same. Our services include cyber hygiene scans on Internet-facing systems, as well as risk and vulnerability assessments. — Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security
Fair election is cornerstone of democracy
Why would the Russians be interested in manipulating the outcome of the U.S. elections? While some have speculated that Russia believes that Donald Trump would be more friendly to its national interest than would Hillary Clinton, that is not seen as the true motivation behind the attempts to hack the U.S. election system. Rather, by discrediting the election process, Russia can undermine the cornerstone of democracy – free and honest elections.
More than any attempt to get one candidate or another elected, this is about discrediting the entire idea of a free and fair election. — Dmitri Alperovitch, CrowdStrike Security
A group of hackers, believed by the FBI to be Russian-controlled, has been given the name ‘Fancy Bear.’ Last June, the Arizona Secretary of State was notified that someone was trying to sell a username and password that belonged to a key country election official in Gila County, which has 54,000 voters. The seller was traced back to Fancy Bear, who had hacked into the official's computer using a Word document that contained malicious software. While the hackers were able to access the local database, they were unable to get into the statewide registration system.
Fancy Bear hacked Illinois records
Election officials in Illinois were not so lucky. In mid-July, Fancy Bear’s cyber prints were found in the hack of some 200,000 voter records from the Illinois Board of Elections. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee discovered this summer that Fancy Bear had hacked their records as well.
Could the Russians or any other group of hackers affect the outcome of the U.S. elections? The answer is a qualified no, at least not directly and not yet. The more than 9,000 polling places in the U.S. use voting machines that are not directly connected to the internet and report their results independently. In most cases, there are paper and/or electronic backup systems so that a recount can be made if necessary. The election process is managed by thousands of localized and independent voting precincts.
We have confidence in the overall integrity of our electoral system. It is diverse, subject to local control, and has many checks and balances built in. — Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security
But the U.S. is increasingly moving towards remote electronic voting, and that move will entail greater risk of the voting process being compromised unless a fail-safe voting system is implemented that protects the electronic integrity of the vote.