Post-election vote tallying raises fresh security concerns

  • World
  • Thursday, 05 Nov 2020

Chester County, Pa., election workers process mail-in and absentee ballots for the 2020 general election in the United States at West Chester University, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in West Chester., Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

WASHINGTON (AP): Election Day came and went without any overt signs of foreign interference affecting the vote, but that doesn’t mean the risk has faded.

A prolonged vote-tallying period in swing states raises the prospect of multiple security concerns, including foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns that could sow doubt in the process as well as actual digital manipulation of vote tabulation.

There have been no indications, nevertheless, of any foreign activity that could alter the vote count or stop votes from being tallied.

A look at some of the potential problems in the days ahead:

Disinformation spread

Intentionally false information and propaganda have been constant during the 2020 presidential contest between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, including threatening but fake emails that were sent to Democratic voters last month that US officials have linked to Iran.

There's no reason to expect disinformation to stop now. It could even become more prevalent as troublemakers at home and abroad seek to create further tension and chaos and to exploit the lingering uncertainty surrounding the vote by inventing bogus claims.

By Wednesday morning, inauthentic Twitter accounts were promoting false or unverified allegations of fraud or advancing Trump’s unsupported claims of impropriety in the counting of ballots, said Christopher Bouzy, the creator of, a platform to detect disinformation on social media.

Those include social media claims that Trump supporters were not able to vote because of broken machines or reiterating Trump's baseless claims about counterfeit ballots, Bouzy said.

In addition, state-owned Russian and Iranian media have been exaggerating election-related unrest in the United States, said Clint Watts and Rachel Chernaskey, foreign influence experts who appeared in an online forum Wednesday hosted by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Groups within the United States are using their own private networks to spread fake information in hopes of mobilising protests in the coming days, they said.

"If the election was a hockey match for disinformation, we are right at the first intermission and we're just dropping the puck for the second period. The period from now to Inauguration Day, regardless of the outcome, is going to be extremely chaotic in terms of the information space and knowing what to believe," Watts said.

Experts from the Stanford University-affiliated election Integrity Partnership reported no significant foreign disinformation since polls closed on Tuesday but said they expected to see mounting online efforts by Trump supporters to try to delegitimise election results.

Defacement of websites

A persistent concern from election security officials is that foreign hackers could deface websites or create fake new ones as a way to dupe the American public. Such an action wouldn't have anything to do with the actual vote tally. The defacements, equivalent in some ways to old-fashion physical graffiti, may seem goofy or easily detectable as fake.

But they could rattle confidence in the process to the extent they convince voters that hackers have gained access to secure sites, especially if they wind up producing manipulated or fake results or other outward-facing displays meant to intimidate or cause panic.

The defacement concern is more than speculative.

Officials have highlighted the threat in public service announcements from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity arm.

The Justice Department in September charged two men believed to be living in Iran with damaging multiple websites in retaliation for the targeted US killing of Iran's top general months earlier. The Trump campaign said last month that its website had been temporarily defaced, though the culprit was not immediately clear.

Websites reporting election results are also a target through "distributed denial of service attacks,” which inundate a computer system with requests, making it unreachable. Such attacks can include barrages of several hundred million requests per second.

But heavy traffic for purely legitimate purposes is also capable of causing sites to crash, adding to concerns of federal and local officials.

Manipulation of the vote count

The vote-tallying process itself is a target for interference. Election security experts say the day after polls close can be especially risk – eespecially if the election is close and the count protracted, as the United States is now facing.

"In addition to disinformation and false accusations of fraud, it creates opportunities for adversaries to commit real fraud by attacking the counting process and the integrity of the ballots,” tweeted Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist.

"Adversaries (of all kinds) now know more clearly where they need to intervene to affect the outcome,” he wrote, noting that in some voting jurisdictions election-management servers connect to the Internet to receive votes while scanners that tally mail-in ballots also connect to them, giving attackers a potential route.

Matt Blaze, an election security expert at Georgetown University, said his biggest concern over possible interference is how few states require or perform post-election audits of tabulation results.

"This means that if there is a software failure, whether though malice or just innocent error, in the tabulation equipment, there is no opportunity in most states to detect the problem and correct the outcome,” said Blaze.

The most efficient methods for do this are statistically rigorous "risk-limiting audits,” but only a few states do it.

Colorado, Georgia and Rhode Island are running legally binding, statewide risk-limiting audits this election. Pennsylvania and Michigan are among states conducting pilots.
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