Election Hacking: Is it a Threat?
October 18, 2016
Election season is fully upon us. Voter registration drives, polls, smear campaigns, October surprises, and accusations of elections rigged by hacking.
Wait a minute, what was that last one? Could someone really pull that off? Could my vote be hijacked by hackers?
There’s been a lot of chatter in the news recently about cyber attacks directed at state voter registration systems and vendors of election systems. But pcworld.com reports that security experts often come to the conclusion that, "while the machines that process votes are riddled with vulnerabilities... they’re not the problem. The real attack surface is the way voters are processed."
Some of the news coverage has noted that the attacks seen so far have been "probing" attacks. These types of attacks are conducted for the purpose of allowing the attacker to learn about possible vulnerabilities to exploit when they attempt to break into the systems they are targeting. The coverage has noted, as well, that systems haven’t yet, at the time of this writing, been compromised.
So, if nothing has been hacked, how do we know that the attacks took place?
A standard component of an enterprise network is a technology known as an intrusion detection/prevention system. These systems do exactly what their name implies: they detect and prevent intrusions, and issue real-time alerts to network managers and security personnel, giving them the vital intelligence they need to protect their systems and networks.
We’ve got you covered
SUNY Plattsburgh has an intrusion-prevention system in place, which allows us to prevent numerous cyber threats to our network and systems, and to you, our faculty, staff, and students.
Now that election hacking has made national headlines, it’s a safe bet that CIOs and information security personnel in every state and locality with responsibility for these systems are closely monitoring the situation and making sure their security is as tight as it can be.
Precisely none of us in these roles would like to be on national television explaining how "something awful like this" happened, so a significant effort is likely underway across the nation right now to ensure that all important systems are not compromised.
A scenario in which voter registration systems are hacked and voter registrations altered is very unlikely. For one thing, voting machines aren’t connected to the Internet. And attacks on individual voting machines would be very nearly impossible because our elections are decentralized. They run on an amalgam of very different voting equipment in tens of thousands of polling places across the country, set up temporarily on the free-throw line of your local elementary school gymnasium or under the flag at a VFW hall.
But however unlikely, if hacking did occur the data could be restored—much more easily than voter confidence in election results.
The fact is that administrators maintain comprehensive backups of the systems they manage. Modern backup solutions are very sophisticated, allowing the system administrator to retain dozens or hundreds of copies of entire server systems and all the data on them, and enabling complete restoration.
Our SUNY Plattsburgh systems have this kind of backup. Like the voter registration system admins, we could restore compromised server data and undo all of the hacker’s hard work, likely within minutes.
Hackers are not targeting election systems with the expectation that they will be able to influence the vote or rig the election in any meaningful way.
They are well aware that this feat is almost impossible due to the protections that information security professionals put in place on important systems.
Their real goal is to cause disruption and cast doubt on the integrity of our elections process. But, that only works if we let it work.
Make no mistake, your vote still counts! Exercise it wisely.
Hacking an election is about influence and disruption, not voting machines. Retrieved October 18, 2016.