Cybersecurity Threats and the Midterm Elections

by: Steven Bowcut, CPP, PSP

Election officials worry about cybersecurity threats that may affect the midterm elections – but is that the real threat?

Last December a bipartisan group of six senators introduced the Secure Elections Act.  This bill intends to streamline cybersecurity information sharing in an effort to help state election officials protect elections from cybersecurity threats.  Despite government’s inability to act quickly and efficiently, information sharing has worked surprisingly well in the protection of America’s critical infrastructure over the last decade.  The SEA will ostensibly bring that same result to protecting our system of elections.  Even if the SEA is wildly successful, many may argue that it totally misses the mark of ensuring that our electoral system is not manipulated by hostile powers.

While this is true, it is not a potent argument against the SEA – we need to protect against cyber-interference in the election process.  We need effective information sharing even if it fails to solve the biggest threat we have to our process of selecting governmental leaders.

Reporting about the concerns of state election officials, Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post writes “State officials have been scrambling to address vulnerabilities in their systems, particularly since the fall, when the Department of Homeland Security disclosed the attempts on the 21 states. Though it is not believed there were further attacks, experts say Russian operatives may have been laying the groundwork for a more aggressive effort in 2018.”

Hackers “got close enough to the line” in 2016 and it “could be different or worse the next time around,” said Bob Kolasky, a senior DHS official who oversees infrastructure protection.

Paul Rosenzweig, in an opinion piece for The Hill, says “the election process is vulnerable to manipulation by hostile powers. We know that (beyond social media manipulation) Russia quite brazenly hacked into the IT systems of political campaign committees and tried to gain access to data held by local elections boards. Though direct manipulation of the election results does not appear to have happened, the mere fact that the effort was made serves to undermine confidence in democracy and subvert our willingness to accept the results.”

To that point, a hostile foreign power need not actually change votes.  They need only to create the suspicion that they could have done so in order to create a total failure of our system of elections.  Historically, our strength has always been in our ability to unite behind the will of the people.  A cunning adversary will erode that will until such time that a shift in the balance of power will only come by coup, as in other countries.

Writing for Lawfare, Herb Lin states”…a focus on preventing the hacking of election systems is misleading and dangerous—it distracts us from the real danger to the republic today, which is the toxic nature of political discourse in an Internet-enabled information environment that Russia can manipulate in entirely legal ways.”

At this point, most rational minds that have scrutinized the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election have concluded that no overt collusion between either party and the Russians is likely to have occurred, however, the possibility of a backroom deal between either party and a foreign government is not as unthinkable as it was just a few years ago.

It is reasonable to argue that even though the systems that capture, record, transmit, and tally our votes may be susceptible to cybersecurity threats, these threats do not pose the most significant danger to a fair election in 2018.  The biggest threat that American democracy faces today comes not from hackers or traitors, rather it comes from social media trolls and the American people’s seeming inability to discern between the rational divergence of opinion and contrived vitriol designed to incite hatred and violence.  Our enemies have identified our weakness and they are exploiting it to their advantage.  Unless we can figure out how to return to a society capable of civil dialog and respectful conversation our adversaries will likely bring this great nation to its knees.