Verified Voting Blog: Want to Know if the Election was Hacked? Look at the Ballots | J. Alex Halderman
You may have read at NYMag that I’ve been in discussions with the Clinton campaign about whether it might wish to seek recounts in critical states. Thatarticle, which includes somebody else’s description of my views, incorrectly describes the reasons manually checking ballots is an essential security safeguard (and includes some incorrect numbers, to boot). Let me set the record straight about what I and other leading election security experts have actually been saying to the campaign and everyone else who’s willing to listen.
How might a foreign government hack America’s voting machines to change the outcome of a presidential election? Here’s one possible scenario. First, the attackers would probe election offices well in advance in order to find ways to break into their computers. Closer to the election, when it was clear from polling data which states would have close electoral margins, the attackers might spread malware into voting machines in some of these states, rigging the machines to shift a few percent of the vote to favor their desired candidate. This malware would likely be designed to remain inactive during pre-election tests, do its dirty business during the election, then erase itself when the polls close. A skilled attacker’s work might leave no visible signs — though the country might be surprised when results in several close states were off from pre-election polls.
Could anyone be brazen enough to try such an attack? A few years ago, I might have said that sounds like science fiction, but 2016 has seen unprecedented cyberattacks aimed at interfering with the election. This summer, attackers broke into the email system of the Democratic National Committee and, separately, into the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and leaked private messages. Attackers infiltrated the voter registration systems of two states, Illinois and Arizona, and stole voter data. And there’s evidence that hackers attempted to breach election offices in several other states.
In all these cases, Federal agencies publicly asserted that senior officials in the Russian government commissioned these attacks. Russia has sophisticated cyber-offensive capabilities, and has shown a willingness to use them to hack elections. In 2014, during the presidential election in Ukraine, attackers linked to Russia sabotaged the country’s vote-counting infrastructure and, according to published reports, Ukrainian officials succeeded only at the last minute in defusing vote-stealing malware that was primed to cause the wrong winner to be announced. Russia is not the only country with the ability to pull off such an attack on American systems — most of the world’s military powers now have sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities.[caption id="attachment_108182" align="aligncenter" width="800"] The pink counties predominately use optical scan paper ballots, which can be examined to confirm that the computer voting machines produced an accurate count. Blue counties use paperless voting systems, which require forensic analysis.[/caption]
Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked. But I don’t believe that either one of these seemingly unlikely explanations is overwhelmingly more likely than the other. The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence — paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.