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How A Hostile Nation Could Disrupt The U.S. Election

Voters casts their ballots in primary elections on March 15 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson Getty Images
Voters casts their ballots in primary elections on March 15 in Chicago, Illinois.

The U.S. presidential election can't be "hacked," authorities insist – but there are many other ways that a hostile nation could try to disrupt it.

Leaders from the White House on down say that all the votes cast will be counted and that Americans will be able to trust the results.

"To be clear: The equipment that people vote on is NOT connected to the Internet," the National Association of Secretaries of State wrote in an open letter to Congress. "Vote counting is NEVER done with systems connected to the Internet, and tabulation systems are not networked."


The group, which represents the state-level officials that run America's elections, insists that no one could create false results. But observers worry that it would not take much to throw everything off kilter.

"Let's say a nation-state wants to cast doubt on the election and cause a lot of problems – they don't have to compromise every single voting machine. They just need to compromise one," said Jason Hong, a computer science professor and cyber-security specialist at Carnegie Mellon University.

"If they do just one, you can imagine all the analysis that would be needed – if they can find even one vote that was flipped, think about how much doubt that would case on the election and how much trouble that would cause."

President Barack Obama is confident that the states can deliver a trustworthy election.

"The president has given voice to his own confidence in our election system to make sure that as people are reading these news reports, that it doesn't cause them to call into question the likelihood that ... any vote that they cast on Election Day will be counted," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.


Russia, however, wants to create chaos in the West. Russian media figures with close ties to the Kremlin have said they want Donald Trump to be the next president. And Russian leaders, U.S. intelligence officials say, have ordered the campaign of cyber-mischief that has defined much of this year's presidential election.

The Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence said last month they were confident that Russia directed the hacking that compromised the emails of Democratic party officials and others from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to former European Command boss retired Gen. Philip Breedlove. Thousands of leaked emails have embarrassed Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Obama administration officials, journalists and others.

If Moscow wants to press further to influence the outcome of the race, there are other cards it could play in the final hours before the end of the race.

News media or social media hacking

News organizations rely both on basic Internet tools – email, chat services such as Slack – and sophisticated distribution systems such as fiber optics and satellite connections. All of them represent a potential weakness for a malicious actor to try to take offline or spoof at a critical moment.

One of the heartiest bromides in politics is that elections are all about turnout. Anything that keeps people from casting a ballot could have a decisive effect on a close race. A false news story planted on a reputable news site – even if it were caught and taken down – might give Democrats the sense that Clinton was winning East Coast states in a landslide, for example. If that meant fewer voters in Central Time or West Coast races turned out because they felt their votes were superfluous, it could influence the race.

"Any fake stories related to the election, people saying things like, 'long lines here,' or 'we've seen some examples of voter fraud,'" might prompt voters to change their behavior, Hong said.

Several potentially explosive news stories have already turned out not to be true: An "FBI investigation" into evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been cultivating Trump as a source. An "indictment" of Clinton that was in the works connected to the Clinton Foundation.

False get-out-the-vote social media posts have listed different voting dates for Democrats and Republicans. There was also a scam on Twitter in which an account posted a message in the style of a Clinton campaign ad that encouraged voters to "avoid the line" by voting from home via text message. That's not legal in any state.

Journalists might also serve as unwitting pawns in an information operation. Russia's intelligence agencies have a long history of forging official-looking documents and "releasing" them to reporters. A bombshell "smoking gun" leak damning to either candidate with only a few days to go could sway key voters before it was debunked – if supporters of the candidate who benefitted ever accepted the debunking, or if the.

"Moscow may continue meddling after the voting has ended to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the result, U.S. officials said," – so ran the lead of a Washington Post story on Friday.

A sense of crisis

Attacks on news organizations might not need to be that sophisticated: cyber-attackers could try to take key news services offline, sowing confusion at best and perhaps creating a sense of crisis at worst. If people feel they're in danger, they might stay home.

National security officials have warned leaders in New York City, Texas and elsewhere about the prospect for terror attacks ahead of Election Day. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday he isn't clear how serious the danger actually is.

"We are still very much assessing the credibility," he said. "It's not at all clear how credible this is. And it is not overly specific information so far. So we are watching carefully. We're certainly in a vigilant position. Everyone is working hard – [joint task force], FBI, etc – to asses this information."

One potential advantage is that Americans are at least preparing themselves for contingencies on Election Night. State officials plan extensively for how they'd handle natural disasters, as Darren Samuelsohn reported in Politico, from blackouts to terrorist attacks. In some cases, they're already preparing for that they might do if elections workers can't access the Internet.

Overall, however, Samuelsohn's headline did not paint an optimistic picture: "States unprepared for Election Day cyberattack."

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