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How Does Election Hacking Work?

The fallout from the 2016 presidential election continues to dominate the news. If you flick to your favourite news channel, there’s a strong chance at least something to do with the election is still making headlines.

And for a good reason. Whatever side of the political spectrum you hail from, there’s a lot to talk about.

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One of the major sticking points is that of election hacking. Allegations of election hacking and tampering continue to swirl, and with more elections looming near, this combustible topic is going to feature increasingly. However, election hacking is a broad term. With one eye on the midterms and another on the future, let’s try and understand exactly what election hacking is.

What Is Election Hacking?

Election hacking has a broad set of definitions, but you can boil it down to one central concept: manipulation of the voting process in favour of a candidate or political party. Election hacking is also known as electoral fraud. At other times critics refer to it as vote-rigging or electoral interference. But the objective is always the same—to directly influence the outcome of a vote.

One challenge facing voters is pinning down the effects of election hacking. Voters encounter difficulty because it isn’t usually a single observable issue taking place. In many cases, the manipulation is subtle, plays out over a lengthy period, and isn’t apparent until after the election results (but not all the time).

Around the world, numerous totalitarian states feature the only name on the ballot: that of the existing leader or party, or parties subservient to the ruling party. This happens in countries like China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam (there are several more, too). These are single-party dictatorships, however, and differ somewhat from rigged voting situations.

There are countless rigged election examples. For instance, the Ugandan general election of 2006, the Kenyan presidential election of 2007, the Romanian presidential election of 2014, the Syrian presidential election of 2014, and hundreds more all fit this category.

What Election Hacking Looks Like in Practice

Despite the many examples of electoral interference around the globe, election hacking boils down to just three major, coverall categories. Why? Because together, these three categories form a cohesive strategy for election hacking.

1. Manipulate the Voters Before the Election

The first strategy is to manipulate the voters before they hit the polling booths. Manipulating voters before an election is itself multifaceted, but there are prominent recent examples for you to examine.

The post-2016 presidential election analysis from various government agencies made it clear that Russia had run a “messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’”

In early November 2017, Congress released a series of Russian-backed Facebook ads that targeted voters of specific demographics. The advertisements promote divisive, emotional topics designed to begin online arguments (some of which spilled out into public). Other revelations saw Russian-run Facebook pages uniting different political pages under unique hashtags to raise awareness.

“Fake news” plays a significant part in voter influence, as does social media in the distribution of the false stories. The severity of fake news varies. At times, fake news is a regular news report that has its truth economically twisted to suit the goal of the news outlet and their political choices.

However, at other times, fake news is outright lies spread throughout social media (sometimes using the aforementioned targeted advertising to hit key demographics that are more likely to share the fake media and thus increase its reach).

Facebook isn’t the only place where voters were unduly influenced by other nations. Twitter is also rife with fake bot accounts that only retweet specific hashtags. Reddit has well-known problems with downvote and upvotes brigading, forcing dissenting voices toward the bottom of the conversation.

Fake news regularly appears in national newspapers, making bold, false allegations that target specific demographics or make sweeping, generalised statements. But when proven false, the newspaper prints a minute apology buried in the middle of edition months down the line.

Another common voter manipulation tactic is to split the opposition support, then manufacture conflict between those parties. The US political system has only two major parties that will really win control of the three branches. Thus, splitting voters within parties isn’t a common tactic. However, in the UK, this tactic becomes more potent due to the overlap of many political parties.

2. Manipulate the Votes and Machines

Directly after the 2016 presidential election, voters were left wondering if nefarious individuals tampered with their voting machines. At the time, the Department of Homeland Security had found no evidence.

However, there were attacks against at least one US voting software supplier, while a leaked NSA document confirmed a breach with a Florida-based voting-equipment vendor. A Bloomberg report in 2017 alleges “Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states,” drastically increasing the scope of potential interference.

A direct attack on the voting machines seems unlikely; outrageous, even. They are a bastion of democracy, after all. But hackers have repeatedly shown just how easy it is to exploit a voting machine. At the enormous DEFCON cybersecurity convention, it took hackers less than two hours to hack a US voting machine. The DEFCON organisers pooled 30 voting machines from a variety of manufacturers, none of which remained secure.

One wireless hack exploited a 14-year-old vulnerability in unpatched Windows XP machines. Using the exploit, Danish security researcher Carsten Schürmann could change the machine vote tally from anywhere on the planet.

Despite what both major US political party supporters yell, there is still no evidence that there was direct voting machine manipulation affecting the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. But “[w]ithout question, our voting systems are weak and susceptible,” says Jake Braun, CEO of security consulting firm Cambridge Global Advisors. “Thanks to the contributions of the hacker community today, we’ve uncovered even more about exactly how.”

3. Manipulate the Infrastructure

Finally, consider how manipulating the infrastructure around an election also plays a part in the outcome. Causing mass-disruption to citizens attempting to cast a vote is another way to hack an election. Disturbing the election process on the day of, or the day before can sway numbers.

Disruption levels vary, as you might imagine. An extreme example is the 1984 Rajneeshee attack. A religious cult poisoned over 700 Oregonians with salmonella to stop them voting in county elections, almost killing several in the process. At the same time, the cult registered thousands of homeless people to vote, promising them food in return. This level of disruption to cause “natural” voter fraud is rare. Also, it is difficult to contain, as the cult quickly realised.

However, widespread disruption doesn’t require poisoning or busloads of homeless people. A hacker with access to a voter database could delete or corrupt voter logs. Sounds outlandish? This exact hack took place at the aforementioned DEFCON conference. As you have already seen, Russian hackers hit voting systems in 39 states, so it isn’t entirely out of the question.

Another infrastructure disruption tactic is a powerful DDoS to take political information offline at critical moments. A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack is easy to organise, as well as cheap and very effective. Political sites can be forced offline under the strain of a DDoS attack.

So while mobilising individuals or even thousands of people to commit voter fraud through disruption is difficult, using digital systems is not.

Election Hacking Is Broad

These three categories cover the majority of the electoral tampering spectrum. Unfortunately, it is broad. But in democratic countries with a strong history of stable voting (as well as the peaceful transition of power), claims of electoral fraud are usually without basis.

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The problem with such assertions is the resulting reactions harm those that already struggle to vote, in turn creating another form of election hacking (this falls under section one and three, by the way).

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