State-sponsored cyber-attacks seemingly intended to influence the 2016 Presidential election have raised a question: Is the vulnerability of computerized voting systems to hacking a critical threat to our national security? Can an adversary use methods of cyber-warfare to select our commander-in-chief?
A dedicated group of technically sophisticated individuals could steal an election by hacking voting machines key counties in just a few states. Indeed, University of Michigan computer science professor J. Alex Halderman says that he and his students could have changed the result of the presidential election. Halderman et al. have hacked a lot of voting machines, and there are videos to prove it. I believe him.
Halderman isn’t going to steal an election, but a foreign power might be tempted to do so. The military expenditures of a medium-size country dwarf the cost of a multi-pronged attack, which could include using the internet, bribing employees of election offices and voting machine vendors, or just buying voting machine companies. It is likely that such an attack would not be detected, given our current election security practices.
What would alert us to such an attack? What should we do about it? If there is reason to suspect an election result (perhaps because it’s an upset victory that defies the vast majority of pre-election polls), common sense says we should double-check the results of the election as best we can. But this is hard to do in America. Recount laws vary with each state. In states where it is possible to get a recount, it often has to be requested by one of the candidates, often at considerable expense.
In the recent election, it is fortunate that Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein, citing potential security breaches, recently requested a recount of the 2016 presidential vote in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and plans to do so in Michigan. Donald Trump unexpectedly won these three states by very narrow margins, and their recount laws are favorably compared with some of the other swing states.