Can Russia hacking our voter databases really have an effect on the elections of the United States? Does Vladimir Putin really have the power to sabotage our machine- and electronic-reader based electoral system? The reality of such an invisible coup is more possible than you think.
Russia’s already done this in other countries, specifically with election manipulation in Ukraine. But the Ukraine is a country with deep civil divisions that make even our polarized politics pale in comparison. There were opportunities there that might not seem as possible here.
The FBI had already released a flash alert to election officials across the country early this year. They noted that cyber attacks were likely and officials should keep an eye out for these. Unfortunately, election offices are typically understaffed when it comes to IT management. There’s no evidence anyone’s tried to hack voter databases on a wide scale before.
Yet we already know that Russian hackers attacked and penetrated the systems of the Democratic National Committee, as well allegedly hacking two state electoral offices: Arizona and Illinois. Of the Illinois breach, we know that up to 200,000 voter records were obtained in the data theft. The Arizona breach was stopped when the infiltrated malware was detected, but it required the entire system be taken down for nine days to clean and secure.
These attacks join others incidents which have been seen as Russia hacking chiefly against liberal political groups, government departments, and military personnel, such as Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander.
There is an alternate possibility. Russia hacking our databases may mean hackers have the ability to make off with data, yet still lack the ability to actually rewrite elections. This doesn’t mean Russia hacking them will have no effect, however. The incursions could simply be part of a plan to create and foster doubt about the electoral process itself. Engendering such doubt is a much older strategy in weakening an enemy during peacetime. It also speaks to the sort of espionage Russia has already used on the politics of countries along its border including the Ukraine.
The FBI and DHS have mobilized to better assess and address the threat. As of now, it’s very unlikely that Russia has the capability to directly influence the numbers in the outcome of an election. Much easier would be disrupting the electoral process itself, forcing a state to move elections or throwing into question the legitimacy of particular votes. Currently, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that DHS isn’t aware of any specific cyber threats against election networks.
Of course, the only whale worth hunting at this level of risk is the presidential election. In the wake of these incidents, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been seen as the candidate who would benefit the most. This is based on Trump’s well-documented and intricate financial ties to Putin, the relationship between Trump’s family and that of Putin, and more anecdotally the mutual admiration both have spoken of for each other. Russia hacking operations aimed at liberal politicians and party infrastructure only supports this idea.
In the best case scenario for Russia, they will either get a friendly president in Trump, or they will be able to severely de-legitimize and weaken a Hillary Clinton presidency in the minds of many Americans. In a worst case scenario, Russia gets to use the attempt as just one more training exercise for sabotaging elections around the world.
What do you think about Russia hacking our state election databases? How worried are you that they’ll be able to throw the election?