Hackers Are Putting U.S. Election at Risk

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • July 28, 2016

Russia has attacked the U.S. in cyberspace in an attempt to influence our national election, many experts have concluded. We need to take this national security threat seriously and both respond and defend, despite the partisan nature of this particular attack.

There is virtually no debate about that, either from the technical experts who analyzed the attack last month or the FBI which is analyzing it now. The hackers have already released DNC emails and voicemails, and promise more data dumps.

While their motivation remains unclear, they could continue to attack our election from now to November—and beyond.

Like everything else in society, elections have gone digital. And just as we've seen cyberattacks affecting all aspects of society, we're going to see them affecting elections as well.

What happened to the DNC is an example of organizational doxing—the publishing of private information—an increasingly popular tactic against both government and private organizations. There are other ways to influence elections: denial-of-service attacks against candidate and party networks and websites, attacks against campaign workers and donors, attacks against voter rolls or election agencies, hacks of the candidate websites and social media accounts, and—the one that scares me the most—manipulation of our highly insecure but increasingly popular electronic voting machines.

On the one hand, this attack is a standard intelligence gathering operation, something the NSA does against political targets all over the world and other countries regularly do to us. The only thing different between this attack and the more common Chinese and Russian attacks against our government networks is that the Russians apparently decided to publish selected pieces of what they stole in an attempt to influence our election, and to use Wikileaks as a way to both hide their origin and give them a veneer of respectability.

All of the attacks listed above can be perpetrated by other countries and by individuals as well. They've been done in elections in other countries. They've been done in other contexts. The Internet broadly distributes power, and what was once the sole purview of nation states is now in the hands of the masses. We're living in a world where disgruntled people with the right hacking skills can influence our elections, wherever they are in the world.

The Snowden documents have shown the world how aggressive our own intelligence agency is in cyberspace. But despite all of the policy analysis that has gone into our own national cybersecurity, we seem perpetually taken by surprise when we are attacked. While foreign interference in national elections isn't new, and something the U.S. has repeatedly done, electronic interference is a different animal.

The Obama Administration is considering how to respond, but politics will get in the way. Were this an attack against a popular Internet company, or a piece of our physical infrastructure, we would all be together in response. But because these attacks affect one political party, the other party benefits. Even worse, the benefited candidate is actively inviting more foreign attacks against his opponent, though he now says he was just being sarcastic. Any response from the Administration or the FBI will be viewed through this partisan lens, especially because the President is a Democrat.

We need to rise above that. These threats are real and they affect us all, regardless of political affiliation. That this particular attack targeted the DNC is no indication of who the next attack might target. We need to make it clear to the world that we will not accept interference in our political process, whether by foreign countries or lone hackers.

However we respond to this act of aggression, we also need to increase the security of our election systems against all threats—and quickly.

We tend to underestimate threats that haven't happened—we discount them as "theoretical"—and overestimate threats that have happened at least once. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are a showcase example of that: Administration officials ignored all the warning signs, and then drastically overreacted after the fact. These Russian attacks against our voting system have happened. And they will happen again, unless we take action.

If a foreign country attacked U.S. critical infrastructure, we would respond as a nation against the threat. But if that attack falls along political lines, the response is more complicated. It shouldn't be. This is a national security threat against our democracy, and needs to be treated as such.

Categories: Computer and Information Security, Elections

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.