Securing the Elections Is Probably Not What You Think It Is

eWEEK PERSPECTIVE: Election security for the 2020 presidential elections is a bigger problem than most voters realize, but the challenges are not necessarily about actual votes.

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When I talk with potential voters about election security, the most common fear is that someone, probably the Russians, will hack their local election board and change votes. That’s actually an unlikely scenario. While a foreign power probably could hack the voting data in your city or county, they’re not going to do it.

The reason that local voter data is unlikely to be hacked is that it’s simply too much work. They’d have to hack into a lot of counties, and that takes a lot of staff hours. Worse, they’d have no way to know in advance whether the voters they were hacking would be ones that would make a difference. Plus, changing too many votes would be noticed.

What actually happens in local elections is that bad actors, foreign or domestic, do their best to discourage people from voting, or they work to cast doubt on the accuracy of the results. There are a number of ways that these bad actors try to prevent voting, including providing information that attempts to confuse voters on election day, or they try to convince voters that the information they have about the election is wrong. 

Disruption of elections is done in roundabout ways

There’s also a subset of such voters that tries to start destructive memes to cast doubt on the process or try to convince voters that their candidate has had something bad happen. Other attacks may not be intended to cast doubts on the integrity of the election systems but can still accomplish that.

An example is Hall County, Ga., which was hit with a ransomware attack in early October. While that attack didn’t prevent voting, it did prevent access to a database that allowed election officials in the county to check signatures on absentee ballots. The county was still able to process those ballots by using a state database, and while it affected other administrative functions, it did not prevent voting.

“I think the Georgia county was a good case,” said Marcus Fowler, director of strategic threats at Darktrace. Fowler said that such attacks can hurt confidence in the election system. 

“These can influence voters’ choice not to vote, they can impede voting and undermine the credibility of the results,” Fowler said. “These cyber actions can erode credibility, and provide a way for candidates to call into question the result if it's not in their favor.”

Transparency from election officials is important

Fowler said that he wishes that Hall County had been more transparent about what happened. “The quicker they can be transparent, the easier they can maintain credibility. You’re feeding the disinformation trolls if you’re not transparent,” he said.

“The more cyber events, the more avenues of disinformation that can erode democratic values. Cyber-attacks are such a great mechanism for this.”

Other attacks on voting appear in the form of destructive memes. In a new study from Check Point on the “Consequences of Meme Warfare on Election Day,” the experts at Check Point are warning voters of the danger of what they call “meme warfare.”

The warning comes after President Donald Trump’s website was defaced by cyber-attackers. “While Trump’s website wasn’t defaced with a particular meme this time, security experts say that these pithy and shareable units of culture can mislead voters into believing false narratives on election day,” the report says. 

Memes in this case are individual weapons of information warfare. “Oftentimes, memes are used to deface websites,” the report explains. “With 5 days left until the U.S. election, voters should be cautious of what security experts say are very possible consequences of falling for manipulative memes.”

What memes can do to discolor election information

The report says that two consequences of such meme warfare include falsely claiming victory. “Misinformation like this can dissuade voters from going to the polls if they learn a certain candidate is projected to win,” the report said.

Another consequence is false claims of foreign interference. “Memes begin circulating that Russia or Iran interfered on election day, when in fact it’s not true. The net result would be doubt and division on the election result,” the report said. In fact, the report says that Facebook has taken down a small network of fake accounts and pages tied to the Iranian government that may have been attempting to influence the election. 

“Don’t be surprised if the next political or government website is defaced with a meme,” said Check Point Head of Product Vulnerability Oded Vanunu. “Memes are the modern form of propaganda. Often, we see memes used to deface websites. Bad actors love them for their viral coefficient: fast, replicable and contagious. Up until now, meme warfare has been shaping the way we think about the two candidates. On election day, meme warfare has the potential to derail the outcome.”

Be aware of what memes do and ignore them

Check Point says that the best way to avoid letting such memes affect the election is to be aware that it’s happening and to warn others. Likewise, be aware of fake social media accounts that are intended to spread disinformation, and if you see such a meme, make sure you verify the information from an independent source.

“Disinformation and cyber actions can form a perfect storm,” Fowler said. He said that election officials need to be transparent, be communications forward and get information to the people on the front lines as soon as possible. 

“Everybody is attacking right now,” Fowler said. “The best defense wins.”

Wayne Rash, a former executive editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...