The security of today’s midterm elections in the U.S. depend in part on the integrity of the electronic voting machines and in how well government agencies can thwart foreign influence campaigns. With officials being concerned about cyber attacks, several government agencies have joined forces to stand ready to combat influence efforts and help state and local officials secure the election process.
United by this goal is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These agencies are working with partners from the federal, state, local and the private sector to ensure a correct count of every vote.
The election infrastructure consists of voter registration databases and the computer systems that support them; voting systems, machines that count, audit and show the results, and issue post-event reports to certify and validate the results.
Midterm voting process carefully monitored
In a joint statement on Monday from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), it was stated that there are no indications that the nation’s infrastructure has been compromised.
“At this time we have no indication of compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would prevent voting, change vote counts, or disrupt the ability to tally votes,” stated the joint statement.
They do reiterate that foreign actors – especially Russia – continue to try and spread misinformation in order to influence and interfere with the midterm elections.
“But Americans should be aware that foreign actors – and Russia in particular – continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord. They can do this by spreading false information about political processes and candidates, lying about their own interference activities, disseminating propaganda on social media, and through other tactics. The American public can mitigate these efforts by remaining informed, reporting suspicious activity, and being vigilant consumers of information, as discussed below.”
The agencies spent the time since the last presidential elections preparing for midterms ramping up their election security efforts, especially since the 2016 event was influenced by hacking and disinformation campaigns.
“Americans can rest assured that we will continue to stay focused on this mission long after polls have closed,” reads the official announcement.
National Guard cyber squads on standby
With the same goal in mind, the states of Washington, Illinois, and Wisconsin have turned to National Guard cyber response teams for assistance should a cyber-security incident arise during the elections.
This is a first for the Washington Air National Guard as the unit has not assisted the security of state elections. Its role is to provide advice on cybersecurity events and risk mitigation, which is part of their routine.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman says that the Guard helped test the systems and improve the security of the infrastructure. This happened in a three-stage mission involving initial assessment, implementing security features and protecting the assets.
In Wisconsin, the National Guard cyber response teams are on standby, as per Governor Scott Walker’s executive order #312. This squad also take an assisting role, as a precaution, in the unlikely event of an incident.
Also as a precaution, the cybersecurity experts with the Illinois National Guard are on standby, offering their help with suspected security breaches.
This measure is part of a security arrangement made after the 2016 presidential election and includes procedures and policies designed to thwart attempts at disrupting today’s midterms.
According to The Register-Mail, at least 20 U.S. states collaborate with their National Guard units for support during the midterm election process.
Election hacking fearmongering
Matt Blaze, a researcher that studied voting systems used for U.S. elections, said in a tweet on Sunday that there was an active “bot effort to discourage people from voting.”
There’s currently an organized bot effort to discourage people from voting. Among their “arguments” is that voting machines are all “rigged”.
I’m one of the computer scientists who discovered these voting system problems. And I vote, because it matters. So should you.
— matt blaze (@mattblaze) November 4, 2018
Blaze is also an associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher focused on computer security and cryptography.
He evaluated the security of the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE “touchscreen”) voting machines and found them to be vulnerable to attacks.
In his testimony for a House of Representatives hearing on cybersecurity of voting machines, he said that they “suffer from serious and easily exploitable security vulnerabilities that could be used by an adversary to alter vote tallies or cast doubt on the integrity of election results.”
As a technologist who studies voting security, I’m the first person to tell you DRE voting machines are too insecure to be used in our elections. My jurisdiction uses them, and I absolutely hate that. And I will still vote on Tuesday. You should too.
— matt blaze (@mattblaze) November 1, 2018
Of course, exploiting the vulnerabilities in these machines is possible under certain conditions unlikely to be available for these midterm elections.
Blaze feels that regardless of the spread of misinformation regarding ‘rigged” voting machines, it is not only important, but necessary, for everyone to vote and not let misinformation interfere with the election.
Hacking is not the bigger evil
The risk of influencing Americans’ election choice remains the biggest problem, as foreign actors will try a variety of methods to interfere. One way is by distributing false information about the candidates and to spread discord on social media platforms.
This type of campaigns were active during the presidential campaign and continued this year on popular social media platforms.
In August, Facebook removed hundreds of pages, groups, and accounts that supported U.S. policies that were favorable to Iran and promoted anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian narratives. The company continued its purge of toxic accounts and on Sunday removed 30 Facebook accounts and 82 Instagram accounts “that may be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Twitter also revised its policies to include protections for the integrity of the elections and actions against interference activity targeting the democratic process, carried through its service.
Granted, disinformation is the greater enemy here. It can sow discord and change perception to an extent that it exerts a strong influence on the decision process.
It is a difficult task that takes time and effort, but it falls on each individual to verify information coming from unknown sources, even if it is passed by friends and relatives, before assimilating it as a true reflection of reality.
The silver lining to this is that this activity is necessary only for the initial vetting process. It also helps find objective, trustworthy news sources.