Did Republican nominee Donald Trump just ask Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to cast the deciding vote in the US presidential election? On Wednesday morning, Trump said he hoped Russia would find and publish 30,000 e-mail messages deleted by his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, from the personal server she used as secretary of state. It was a startling spectacle: a presidential candidate urging a foreign government to play a role in America’s game of thrones. But there’s a chance Putin is already a player. The trove of embarrassing e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, which were leaked to the press just in time for this week’s party convention in Philadelphia, were probably swiped by Russian hackers, according to US intelligence officials and independent cybersecurity companies. Russia’s apparent election tampering — and Trump’s call for the Russians to expose Clinton’s deleted e-mails — shows that the insecurity of America’s data networks could undermine our ability to hold free and fair elections. But if the Russian president would go this far to pick our next president, why not take the direct approach? Why not tamper with the computers that manage the nation’s voting systems? Maybe that has already happened. Those voting systems are certainly vulnerable.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, in light of the DNC, that major voting systems have been compromised,” said Ron Rivest, a founding father of modern encryption systems and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who won the Turing Award, computing’s version of the Nobel Prize. “We do need to be concerned about the integrity of our voting systems in the face of possible attacks by foreign nation-states.”
In Massachusetts, and in most of the United States, people still do their voting on paper ballots. But according to Verified Voting, an organization that tracks electoral technology, voters in a dozen states can use all-electronic voting machines, where the only record of a citizen’s vote is stored on a hard drive or a memory chip. What might happen if hackers managed to infiltrate these machines, or the networks that collect and count votes from them?
“If it’s a swing state, those votes could conceivably decide which party wins that state,” said Barbara Simons, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery and an adviser to the US Election Assistance Commission, a federal body that oversees voting guidelines. Some machines don’t even generate a paper printout of the voter’s choices, so you can forget about setting things right with a recount.