WASHINGTON — Experts in the American voting process believe hackers have the ability to disrupt the upcoming presidential election, thanks mostly to electronic systems that have made everything vulnerable to cyberattack.
“If you can get at an election management system, you could potentially alter results, or muddy up the results, or you could even just shed doubt on the outcome because you make it clear that there’s been tampering,” Pamela Smith, the president of a group called Verified Voting, told National Public Radio (NPR).
If may sound like something out of a Hollywood film, but it’s more possible than you might think. A cyberattack in July penetrated the Illinois voter registration system, giving hackers potential access to a database of registered voters. It wasn’t clear if any data was stolen or tampered with, but the system was shut down a week later, the Times of Northwest Indiana reported.
The biggest fear is that hacking would make it impossible to verify the outcome of an election – or even that a system would be hacked and no one would know it. That would create doubts and might lead to a recount and court challenges, as happened after the 2000 presidential election.
But a 2016 scenario could be far worse than the 2000 election. That’s because 80 percent of Americans vote either on a paper ballot or on a system with a paper backup, Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice told NPR. That means that the votes of 20 percent of Americans potentially would be unknown.
Each of the 50 states runs its own voting system. To make matters worse, elections are often run by volunteers with little or no expertise in computers and cybersecurity.
Several recent stories should give Americans pause:
- The FBI found evidence that Arizona’s voter registration database was hacked in June, KTVK-TV Malware was able to penetrate the system by going through a county election official’s computer.
- Virginia’s Board of Elections banned the use of touchscreen voting machines in April 2015 after it was discovered that 20 percent of them were vulnerable to hacking via wireless signals, NPR reported.
- Security analyst David Levin was arrested in May after he posted a YouTube video showing how easy it was to penetrate the election site of Lee County, Florida, NPR Levin was trying to show how vulnerable the system is. “Yeah, you could be in Siberia and still perform the attack that I performed on the local supervisor of election website,” Levin said. “So this is very important.”
- The Democratic National Committee’s system was hacked this year.
“Wherever there’s a fully electronic voting system, there’s potential for tampering of some kind,” Smith said.
Perhaps most disturbing, a hacker named Andrés Sepúlveda told Bloomberg in March that he fixed or tried to fix elections throughout Latin America for eight years. He is now in prison.
“My job was to do actions of dirty war and psychological operations, black propaganda, rumors—the whole dark side of politics that nobody knows exists but everyone can see,” Sepúlveda told Bloomberg.
The hacker claims he was paid tens of thousands of dollars to steal campaign data, install spyware, hack smartphones and spread false information through the Internet, social media and email. One of his specialties was to create fake Twitter accounts and send out false tweets, to convince voters that political propaganda was actually news.
“When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything,” Sepúlveda told Bloomberg.
He said he has few regrets.
“I worked with presidents, public figures with great power, and did many things with absolutely no regrets because I did it with full conviction and under a clear objective, to end dictatorship and socialist governments in Latin America,” he said.
Sepúlveda worked in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela, according to Bloomberg.
He once tricked computers into calling voters at 3 a.m. – when they are asleep – to listen to a recording message for a candidate. The goal was to make voters mad at the candidate and vote against him, and it worked. He lost in a close election.
Asked if he believes similar things are being done in the United States, Sepúlveda replied, “I’m 100 percent sure it is.”
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