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How Hackers Could Cause a Presidential Election ‘Virtual Hanging Chad’

Aug 11, 2016

The hanging chad from the 2000 Presidential election could be making a comeback—in virtual form.

At the Black Hat USA 2016 hacking conference in Las Vegas that ended on Aug. 4, security firm Tripwire surveyed more than 220 information security professionals to determine whether they believed hackers could influence the outcome of the Presidential election. Nearly two-thirds of those respondents—63%, to be exact—answered with a simple "yes." Nearly 20% of respondents, however, believe any state-sponsored attacks that could affect this year's elections shouldn't be considered acts of cyber war.

Regardless, Tripwire's senior director of security research and development Lamar Bailey said that hackers will inevitably attack the U.S. on election day, but they likely won't be able to coordinate massive hacks. Instead, the security firm argues, hackers might try to target swing states and even counties within those states that might be easier targets to create disruption on election day.

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"This is not something that can be done in a few days or weeks, if an organization is going to be successful in this style of attack they must be well funded and have started work months ago," Bailey said. "It is much more likely that many small attacks will happen in an attempt to discredit the results from various states or counties within states. It could be like the 2000 election but with a virtual hanging chad."

Bailey is referring to the infamous Florida recount in 2000 that caused a delay in determining the victor between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Chief among the concerns during the period were so-called "hanging chads," or partially punched holes. There was nearly nightly debate during the period over whether the hanging chads should represent a vote or not, and to what degree they needed to be punched in order to show a desire to vote for the respective candidate.

Now, though, voting machines have become more sophisticated and some, like Tripwire and those at Black Hat USA, a hacker conference, suggest they could come under fire.

However, there is some debate over just how much damage hackers could or even would do.

Earlier this week, for instance, Fortune writer Jeff John Roberts threw cold water on the notion hackers could affect the election. He noted, among other things, that few American citizens actually use voting machines and most actually use paper ballots or mail-in votes. In addition, several states have a paper trail they can audit in the event something goes awry and most voting machines are so old, it could be impossible to hack them.

"Thanks to America’s decentralized voting process, the possibility of hackers wresting control of the election is basically nil," he wrote. "Instead, the real concerns to the voting process are familiar ones like voter registration lists, ballot stuffing, or tampering with mail-in ballots. In other words, on Election Day, be more worried about the local party boss than the Kremlin."

The Internet Law Resource Center agrees with Roberts, saying in its own piece on the matter that a widespread hack of U.S. voting machines is "highly unlikely."

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So, expect the debate to continue up until Election Day when Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton square off in their race to the White House.

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