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If the election is hacked, we may never know

Patrick Thibodeau | Oct. 6, 2016
Even if someone figures out that the voting machine firmware has been changed, the votes may need to be tossed

If the goal is to wreck confidence in the U.S. election, then Donald Trump's recent comment that he fears a "rigged" election is just more stirring of this pot.

Elections are decentralized, run by states and local governments, and a near-universal worry shared by cybersecurity experts is that the election staffs may be out-gunned by hackers.

A majority of poll workers are retired senior citizens who "may not be computer literate," said Jim Christy, vice president of investigations and digital forensics at cybersecurity start-up Cymmetria. The average age of poll workers is estimated to be over 70, he explained. Christy was also a former chief election judge in Anne Arundel County, Md.

"Mistakes, ignorance, and manipulation of the poll workers is possible as the average training for poll workers is only 2.5 hours," said Christy.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently offered nationwide help with cybersecurity issues, and Pennsylvania is one of the states that has accepted this assistance.

But there will be concerns about the level of federal involvement, said Daniel 'DJ' Rosenthal, a cybersecurity expert in Kroll's Investigations and Disputes practice. He has previously worked in the Obama administration on cyber security and counterterrorism.

Federal involvement in state and local elections is "inconsistent with our structure" of the federal system, and state governments may fear that federal involvement in local elections could mean a start to creating standards for other systems. The federal government is involved in election security -- after the attack, to investigate breaches, but does not have a preventive role, he said.

Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton, testified before a U.S. House committee on Sept. 28, and urged lawmakers to eliminate use of touch-screen voting machines, in the same way they outlawed punch-card ballots following the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Appel said more states are using optical scanners, and while the scanning machine has a computer in it, there is also a "ballot of record, and it can be recounted by hand, in a way we can trust," he told lawmakers.

Despite all the potential risks ahead, Eckhardt says, "People should vote. The only way that your vote for sure doesn't get counted is you don't cast it."


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