Cyber Hacking Among Top U.S. Concerns Over Election

By
  • Chris Strohm
Published
  • November 08 2016, 6:30am EST
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(Bloomberg) -- Hacking attacks. Voter intimidation. Foreign interference. No election in modern U.S. history has faced such a convergence of threats, some 21st century and others as old as democracy.

It’s testing the federal government’s ability to ensure the process is secure.

Even before an Oct. 21 cyber attack hampered access to popular websites, the Department of Homeland Security assigned more than 100 specialists around the country to help state and local election officials mitigate cybersecurity vulnerabilities. For the first time, the FBI will have an Election Day command post in Washington, and the Justice Department says it will watch for voter intimidation even after a court decision limited its ability to field observers.

“We are aware of the noise going on around the country, but we also have a history of doing this work in the context of elections that may be particularly fraught,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview. The division is in charge of protecting voters from discrimination based on race, religion, nationality and other protected categories.

All this comes as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been trying to rally his base with claims that the election will be rigged. He has called on his supporters to go to the polls and watch voters, which some critics say could lead to intimidation and possible violence.

DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a little-known entity called the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center will serve as the focal point for the federal government’s triage on Election Day if there are hacking-related problems, with trained personnel ready to deploy to locations around the country, said a DHS official who asked not to be identified discussing the arrangements for Nov. 8.

Sowing Confusion

That effort includes preparing for the election infrastructure to handle a major “DDoS” attack like the one last week that swamped a number of U.S. websites in a deluge of traffic. To date, 42 states and 29 county or local election agencies have sought cybersecurity assistance from DHS.

The biggest concern isn’t that hackers could manipulate the actual voting results -- that’s almost impossible because most systems at polling places aren’t even connected to the Internet -- but rather that they could sow confusion among voters through nefarious activities like altering information on websites listing the hours or locations of polling places, the official said. The federal agencies and the nation’s biggest internet service providers will coordinate their efforts on Election Day through the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in the suburbs of northern Virginia.

Efforts to secure state and local election systems have been positive so far, according to the DHS official. The department isn’t anticipating widespread problems with voters showing up to the polls only to find that their information in registration databases has been manipulated, the official said.

‘Sophisticated’ Attacks

There’s no evidence to date that vote-counting systems have been tampered with, and early voting in many states is already under way, the official said.

“We have confidence in the overall integrity of our electoral systems,” DHS said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we must face the reality that cyber intrusions and attacks in this country are increasingly sophisticated, from a range of increasingly capable actors that include nation-states, cyber hacktivists, and criminals.”

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