Securing the Digital World

Election Security in the Crosshairs

Aug 25, 2020 | by Redvers Curry |
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Throughout periods of history, democracy has come under attack. Today, digital innovations give bad actors new tools and methods to undermine it. At the center of it all: the Internet. 

Advancements in technology are paving the way for a future of electronic voting. That technology isn’t ready yet, but one day we’ll be able to deliver participatory democracy to citizens in ways that can bypass many of the ills of previous democratic mechanisms. Electronic voting permits more people to vote more easily without facing prejudices at the polls. 

This year, countries around the world will again head to the ballot box. Increasingly, the institution of elections can be marred by a number of cyber attack risks, including: denials-of-service on infrastructure, hacking at scale and manipulation of information to influence voters. 

It’s fair to say that every time there is a modern conflict -- whether it’s in the form of kinetic warfare or battles at the polls -- there will be a cyber dimension to it. Let’s review three of the main targets:

  1. Voting machines: Some are now Internet-connected and poorly isolated, secured or even verified. The risks associated with this range from machines being turned off to submiting results that can be manipulated to look statistically valid . To combat this problem, election officials should require physical receipts for manual verification, machine reconciliation andimplement strong authentication.
  2. Infrastructure of the electoral procedure: As witnessed during the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus, new, immature mobile applications can fail and undermine the election process. Local governments must test their systems and closely assess their processes to mitigate vulnerability or potential failure.
  3. Manipulation and abuse of media: The most pervasive type of manipulation is the use of misinformation tactics to convince voters to protest by not voting. Today, this strategy is increasingly effective because rich multimedia makes it harder to decipher fact from fiction. Imagine a scenario, for example, where a viral alert on the morning of an election is sent only to certain voters. This would greatly alter the outcome of an election and cast doubt on the election process. There are things we can do to defend targets and strengthen the democratic electoral process globally. Let’s start with the critical first step: fund election security. Funding will allow election officials toreplace outdated voting machines and perform pre-election testing with vulnerability analysis for continuous improvement with balance between updates in technology and infrastructure. Stronger security standards are also needed for voter registration and voter infrastructure systems. Finally, the focus can then be put on threat intelligence sharing with detailed assessments and real-time notifications of security breaches and potential threats.

It has been said that every generation must defend democracy. The best insulation is for a citizenship to remember that democracy is hard and requires conversations and debates while we listen to each other and forge ahead together. Every democracy will be tested, and countries must take note of prior errors. Today, election security is in the crosshairs and vulnerable to influence and disruption. This is what we must weather together to ensure that the next generation has its chance to defend democracy.