A series of high-profile breaches and warnings from national intelligence leaders has elections directors in critical battleground states seeking federal help against possible cyberattacks. Officials in Pennsylvania and Ohio tell CNN they are working closely with the Department of Homeland Security to protect their elections systems from cyberattacks and breaches. Ohio is going one step further. “We even asked the National Guard to attempt to penetrate our databases,” said Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. “We’ve had a number of really positive tests. It has gone well and we’ve been able to find vulnerabilities and fix them.” A pair of cyberattacks on Illinois’ and Arizona’s voter registration databases over the summer spurred the Obama administration to ring the alarm bells for states as they prepare for what has already been a chaotic campaign. And top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees publicly accused the Russian government of seeking to alter the election. “Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, said Thursday.
Cybersecurity experts say the prospect of “rigging” the election, and changing the outcome, is practically impossible. Elections are decentralized: 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, run their own operations, not to mention the thousands of counties across the country that play a major role at the local level.
Different jurisdictions use different voting machines, It isn’t plausible for hackers to breach them all in one fell swoop — penetrating one election system in North Carolina has no impact on Colorado. Furthermore, most voting machines aren’t connected to the Internet, which inoculates them from outside intrusions. But hackers could still cause plenty of havoc in November, with attacks on registration systems or government websites reporting the results on election night. Many news organizations pull their results from those sites.
“Think about the chaos you could cause if you get one TV network calling the election for one candidate, and another network calling the election for the other,” said Professor Herbert Lin, a cybersecurity expert at Stanford University. “If your intent is to sow doubt and uncertainty, at least in the short term, affecting the media reporting could be really problematic.”