One evening last May in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the night of the local primary election, Dave Ball, the assistant IT director for Knox County, settled into the Naugahyde chair of his dusty home office and punched away at his desktop computer. Ball’s IT staff had finished a 14-hour day, running dress rehearsals to prepare for the ritual chaos of election night. In a few minutes, at exactly 8 pm, the county’s incoming precinct results would become visible to the public online. Curious, Ball typed in the address for the Knox County election website. At 7:53, the website abruptly crashed. Staring back at Ball was a proxy error notice, a gray message plastered against a screen of purgatorial white. It read simply, “Service Unavailable.” Across East Tennessee, thousands of Knox County residents who eagerly awaited the results saw the same error message — including at the late-night election parties for various county candidates, where supporters gathered around computers at Knoxville’s Crowne Plaza Hotel and the nearby Clarion Inn and Suites. Ball was scowling at the screen when the phone on his table buzzed. It was a message from a staffer, still on duty at the IT department: “We’ve got a problem here,” it read. “Looks like a DDOS.” Ball still remembers his next, involuntary exclamation: “Oh, shit.”
Technicians recognized the attack: a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, in which a server is overwhelmed by a crushing wave of requests, slowing it to a halt. Over at the county’s IT center, “the error logs were coming so fast that you couldn’t even see what anything said,” recalled Ball.
One county technician, dumbfounded by the whoosh of code rocketing across the screen, somberly took out his phone and began to film it. The assault was being launched from 65 countries, a legion of zombie computers pressed into service by the attack’s architects. Finally, the barrage intensified so much that after 15 minutes, the server succumbed and crashed.
Ball was now besieged by callers — local politicos, voters, county staff. One of them was Cliff Rodgers, the Knox County administrator of elections, who was deliberating what he should tell the local media. “I’ve got three TV crews filming me. I’ve never had three TV crews at one time,” Rodgers said, recounting how the chaos unspooled.
Rodgers would later explain to the media that the online precinct tally is unofficial: Attacking it can’t change the vote count, any more than hacking basketball scores on YahooSports.com can change the actual winner of the NBA finals. But it was natural for voters to wonder if the integrity of the vote itself had come under threat: “It’s the first question they asked me,” Rodgers said.