There’s never a good time, politically speaking, to raise questions about our voting system’s vulnerability to hackers. But we can no longer avoid the issue. Bloomberg News reported this week that the US government determined that Russian hackers penetrated the voting systems in 39 states in the weeks leading up to the November 2016 election. The hacks did not involve changing votes — typically they were forays into voter registration databases — but in at least one case, in Illinois, the hackers tried to delete voter data, Bloomberg reported. US officials complained to the Russians, who denied involvement, but President Obama decided not to alert the public, because he didn’t want people to lose faith in the system. To this day, President Trump’s aides suggest that Democrats who call for an investigation into Russian hacking are sore losers. But the evidence that Russia attempted to influence our 2016 election has become unignorable. In January 2017, the CIA, FBI, and NSA jointly released an assessment that Russia used cyber tools to influence American public opinion (specifically, to “denigrate Secretary Clinton”).
And the Bloomberg piece was only one of several bombshells about compromised American voting systems to land this month. The Intercept obtained an NSA document that described in detail how Russian military hackers — not amateurs — mounted a phishing attack against an unnamed voting software supplier, then used information it obtained to try the same with local government officials. What the hackers obtained was unclear — and, again, the interference seems to have fallen short of changing votes. Still, the Intercept wrote, “Russian hacking may have penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood.”
Finally, Politico reported the alarming story of how a curious security researcher discovered last year that Kennesaw State University’s Center for Election Systems had left unprotected, on its website, computer files essential for running Georgia elections. Expecting to download a few PDFs about the center’s work, he found himself in possession of registration databases, pollbook software, and instructions to election workers about logging in to registration systems — passwords included.
He reported the vulnerabilities to the center, but several were not fixed as of this March, so he went to the media. Georgia is preparing for a special runoff election this month that has turned into the most expensive House race in US history. If you were a hacker looking to undermine American politics, you couldn’t pick a better election.