When an FBI alert to state election authorities warning them of hacking leaked to the media this week, the result was one of studied panic. Two voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois had been penetrated, and some experts saw it as confirmation that Russia had escalated its campaign of hacking U.S. political organizations. Russian President Vladimir Putin just “unleashed the hounds” on the U.S. election system, one industry executive declared. So far, there is scant evidence that hackers working on behalf of Russian intelligence penetrated two fairly inconsequential voter databases in Arizona and Illinois. The FBI told election authorities in Arizona that Russian hackers were responsible for stealing a set of user credentials but provided no details about whether it was a criminal or state-sponsored group. In a letter to the FBI on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid asked the bureau to investigate whether Russia is attempting to manipulate results of November’s elections. Russian efforts to do so are “more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results,” he wrote.
Cybersecurity experts have long warned that computerized voting systems are vulnerable to hacking, and what once seemed like wild prognostication is increasingly coming true. Hackers working on behalf of the Russian government penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. When emails from the party’s servers appeared on WikiLeaks, it sparked a scandal that caused the resignation of party chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
That operation has the classic appearance of Russian information warfare, and security experts have accused state-sponsored Russian hackers of targeting a wide variety of political organizations, including the two major presidential campaigns. By gaining access to voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois, hackers did not obtain the power to manipulate vote totals, though they could certainly cause chaos.
“I suppose they could just nuke the voter database,” said Dan Wallach, a computer scientist at Rice University. “I’m picturing in my head Vladimir Putin dressed up as the Joker.” Deleting the rolls of registered voters on Election Day would severely undermine the vote’s integrity, but Wallach was quick to add that the evidence for Russian involvement remains thin.