After a raucous presidential campaign, voters finally will have their say in November on whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States.
Or will they?
The FBI is investigating hacking attacks on election data in two states and suggests Russian hackers may be to blame. The incidents raise the specter of foreign agents trying to alter the results of America’s next presidential election.
That possibility is a big enough concern for federal agencies to get involved in safeguarding states’ election databases. On Tuesday, North Carolina’s board of elections requested help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in safeguarding their voting-related systems.
S.C. Election Commission officials have listened in on nationwide conference calls in recent weeks with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the FBI and Justice Department on safeguarding voter files, said spokesman Chris Whitmire, adding S.C. officials have been coordinating their efforts with federal and state security experts.
Whitmire is quick to stress there is no evidence any S.C. election data ever has been attacked. But digital security is a hot topic that election officials want to stay on top of, he added. “IT is not a static field,” Whitmire said. “If you were secure last week, you’re not as secure as you were this week.”
While the hacks in Arizona and Illinois may threaten individuals’ personal information, they can’t compromise the results of an election, Whitmire said. “If the headline says ‘voting system,’ people think, ‘Well, the fix is in,’ ” he said. “But voter registration is a completely separate system” than vote tallying.
Dean Crepes, director of the Lexington County election office, said voter data is so centralized that county officials must log into the S.C. Election Commission’s records by entering a verified private network, or VPN, number, even on their office computers. None of the information is kept on county computers.
When it comes to actually voting on Election Day, South Carolina’s electronic voting machines are each a self-contained unit. None is connected to the Internet or even to each other. “The only thing they’re connected to is electricity,” Crepes said.
The state Election Commission also monitors how counties secure their voting machines, whether it is on-site at the election office or in a secured warehouse, and makes recommendation for improved security features.
All that being said, hacks like those attempted against voter data elsewhere can still pose a threat.
“That contains personal identifiable information,” the state’s Whitmire said, adding a large-scale hack there “could disrupt our ability to hold an election.”
Still, officials downplay the possibility of successful hacking of the election process – whether by a foreign government or a rogue computer nerd. “If X, Y and Z happens, it’s possible. It’s possible to steal all the gold out of Fort Knox,” Whitmire said. “The point of these measures is to make it very unlikely.”