BY DIANE DIMOND
It’s time for America to get its cybersecurity act together — on many fronts. But we need to start a serious discussion, right now, about how to keep the upcoming presidential election results safe and secure. This needs to be a completely nonpartisan discussion that looks past a particular candidate’s shockingly premature prediction of a “rigged election,” and goes further than whether voter-identification cards are a good or bad idea.
This week we learned from the FBI that foreign hackers recently penetrated two state-election databases, possibly with an eye toward disrupting the November election. The cyber-footprints left behind, reports say, seem to point to Russian state-sponsored hackers. According to investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, Arizona and Illinois were the targeted states.
Officials in Washington, D.C., have apparently feared an infiltration of our election systems for a while. Last month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote to the FBI, saying that the threat of the Russian government tampering with our presidential election “is more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.” Reid asked FBI Director James Comey to fully investigate the matter, and now we know the bureau is doing just that.
At a symposium in Washington, D.C. this week, Comey said that the agency takes threats “very, very seriously” because state-sponsored hackers from places like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea “are getting much more sophisticated (and) much more aggressive” in their online activities.
In Arizona, hackers inserted malicious software into the state computerized voter-registration system. It doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that if that malware begins erasing or changing voters’ information, the entire Arizona election result would be thrown into doubt.
In Illinois, the damage appears to be worse. The hackers apparently downloaded the personal data of some 200,000 state voters. Imagine what a criminal mind could do with that kind of information!
Just what cybercriminals might do to throw a monkey wrench into our electoral process isn’t clear. But what they could do is mind-boggling. And what’s their motive? Is some foreign power trying to swing the election toward Donald Trump? Or perhaps toward Hillary Clinton? Maybe they are simply trying to disrupt for disruption sake.
Imagine the potential vulnerabilities. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some form of internet-based voting. Ballots can be sent in via email, fax or internet portal, which is used mainly by voters overseas and in the military. How long do you think it might take a sophisticated hacker, say, one who has already infiltrated our banks, corporations or government computers, to figure out how to manipulate those internet-assisted votes? Yeah, probably not very long.
The Department of Homeland Security has communicated with election officials in all states and offered federal assistance to lessen the possibility of cyberattacks. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson offered a few tips, such as ensuring that electronic voting machines are not connected to the internet while voting is taking place. And those states that don’t have a paper-ballot backup for voting machines are encouraged to develop one.
Let’s hope every state takes steps to lessen their vulnerabilities, lest we be forced to endure another after-the-fact, chad-counting spectacle like the one following the George W. Bush-Al Gore race in 2000. Do any of you doubt that there will be calls for a recount if the Clinton-Trump race is close? There’s no reason to think the contentiousness of this election season will end after Election Day.
Digital voting may be seen as progress, but I long for the day when you showed up at your designated polling place and filled out a paper ballot. Yes, it took longer to count them all and come to a final tally, but there was something comforting in the fact that you could prove where the votes came from and there was no suspicion of hacking.
Since there is no going back, we have to find a way to ensure that outside forces — be they foreign countries or opposing campaigns — cannot infiltrate states’ voting systems to manipulate the outcome.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]