Panelists at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum discussed the vulnerability of U.S. election systems to cyber threats Thursday.
Cyber attacks and leaks orchestrated by hackers have been a source of significant media attention during the 2016 campaign season. Earlier this month, the Obama administration accused the Russian government of hacking the Democratic National Committee and other American political groups. Michael L. Sulmeyer, director of the Kennedy School’s Cyber Security Project, led the conversation on the safety of the election system at the Institute of Politics.
Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan NGO that promotes the transparency and accuracy of elections, opened the forum with an overview of technology in U.S. elections. According to Smith, technology used in elections, such as voting machines or electronic paper ballot scanners, is vulnerable to hackers.
Benjamin Buchanan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cyber Security Project, followed up by recounting the Russian hacking of Ukraine’s elections in May. Though Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service succeeded in thwarting Russia’s attempts to alter vote counts that appeared on constituents’ television screens, Russia succeeded in tampering with the vote counts that appeared on the country’s elections website.
Smith also described two hacker breaches in the voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois, which showed that the attacks were not limited to foreign countries. According to Smith, while a foreign power altering vote counts to the point of changing the winner remains improbable, the vote count could still be altered.
“This is not so much theoretical at this point. This is happening,” Smith said.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer at cybersecurity company CrowdStrike, agreed on the probability of a breach in election security. He said the motives of potential hackers would not be to ensure the election of a specific candidate, but would be to “unwind the very idea of our election, of free and fair democracy.”
Smith cautioned voters against the belief that the upcoming presidential election is rigged, as the auditing of paper ballots makes any discrepancies in vote count temporary. She closed the forum by urging listeners to vote regardless of risks they perceive to election security.
“Have faith. Go vote.”
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