It was only two weeks ago that we reported on Facebook intercepting a coordinated disinformation operation aimed at the 2018 midterm elections. While the incident in itself is promising, highlighting Facebook’s improved vigilance regarding the spread of false news, it reminded us of the unrelenting appetite of certain actors to subvert a democratic process.
About 2 days ago, another concerning development took place at DEFCON 26, one of the world’s largest hacker conventions, involving a replica of the Florida state election website and a very young hacker.
During this year’s event, about 50 children, aged between 8 and 16, took part in the “DEFCON Voting Machine Hacking Village,” during which they were challenged to hack 13 imitation websites linked to voting in presidential battleground states. The participants were allowed to manipulate party names, candidate names, and the vote count.
Within 10 minutes, an 11-year old boy was able to change voting results on the Florida state election website. In about 15 minutes, an 11-year-old girl managed to triple the number of votes on the same replica website. Within half an hour, more than 30 children were able to hack similar state replica websites.
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) issued a statement saying that it is “ready to work with civic-minded members of the DEFCON community wanting to become part of a proactive team effort to secure our elections.”
The organization did, however, express its doubt over hackers’ ability to access the actual state websites, claiming that “it would be extremely difficult to replicate these systems since many states utilize unique networks and custom-built databases with new and updated security protocols.”
But one of the people involved in organizing the event, Nico Sell, stressed that “these are very accurate replicas of all of the sites,” in a conversation with PBS NewsHour. Another person involved in the event said that some of the replicas were even more formidable than the actual websites.
Either way, hacking a reporting website would not affect the polling process itself. “While it is undeniable websites are vulnerable to hackers, election night reporting websites are only used to publish preliminary, unofficial results for the public and the media. The sites are not connected to vote counting equipment and could never change actual election results,” the NASS statement explained.
But there are serious implications to manipulating reporting websites nonetheless. In a time of heightened sensitivity regarding political issues and extreme polarization of political opinion, distorting election results could lead to chaos and an increased sense of conspiracy and distrust in the democratic process.