A spate of hacking attacks has put U.S. states on edge ahead of November’s presidential vote as election officials rush to plug cybersecurity gaps with help from the federal government. Nine states have asked for “cyber hygiene” scans in which the Department of Homeland Security looks for vulnerabilities in election authorities’ networks that are connected to the internet, according to a DHS official who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. With less than two months before the election, DHS wants more states to sign up. The threat — primarily from foreign hackers or intelligence agencies — affects states that are reliably Democratic or Republican as well as key battlegrounds including Pennsylvania and Ohio, officials and cybersecurity experts said. While hackers may not be able to change the actual outcome from afar, they could sow doubts by manipulating voter registration websites, voter databases and systems used to track results on election night. “We’re certainly on high alert,” said Dean Logan, the registrar-recorder and county clerk in Los Angeles County, the nation’s biggest electoral district. “Across the whole network of services and online applications for the county there are frequent indications of attempts to get into those systems.”
Most states use voting equipment that can generate a paper record, allowing for audits or recounts if the result is close or tampering is suspected. Among the exceptions is Pennsylvania, which both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are targeting as a priority.
The electronic voting machines in 50 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties leave no paper trail, according to Verified Voting, a California-based nonprofit that monitors voting methods. Many of those counties use touch-screen machines, which are especially vulnerable, according to Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University who stores in a warehouse the old voting machines that his research teams have hacked over the past dozen years.
Though the touch-screen machines aren’t connected to the internet — where hackers can do damage from around the world — someone with physical access to the devices could employ techniques such as inserting a cartridge carrying malware that could reprogram their software, he said. Similar machines are used in Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.