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The Implications of Cyber Threats in a Decisive Election Year

Updated: Mar 31

Brendan Ryan

Summary: This is relevant to the defense and security division because it involves the protection  of our electoral process and the personal data of US voters. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure  Security Agency must combat cyber threats by being proactive and mitigating risks from foreign  hackers. Additionally, American citizens can protect themselves by doing political research and being aware of cyber campaigns seeking to disrupt and distract the voting process.

Image via Getty Images

A hot topic of discussion during the previous two American presidential elections, cyber  threats and voter security are poised to be even more consequential in this upcoming November  election cycle. The recent shift towards a digitized election process has brought numerous  benefits for those looking to register to vote or are unable to get to the polls on election day.  Furthermore, campaigns and Political Action Committees have a quicker way of accessing their  voting base, managing funds and boosting outreach. However, this digitization has brought with  it a great magnitude of risk and concerns regarding the security of personal data of the American  citizenry. Understanding and mitigating these threats will be imperative for re-establishing voter  security, reducing foreign influence and harboring the fairest election possible. 

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) admits that despite the  numerous benefits, modern electoral processes are increasingly at risk of cyberattacks,  particularly from foreign actors seeking to influence and disrupt American politics. Voter  databases are easier to access than ever and contain personal information ranging from address  and phone number to donation history. Furthermore, the IFES notes that perpetrators may seek to  alter vote counts via Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Russia, who’s efforts to  disrupt American elections is well documented, was guilty of a DDoS attack on Ukraine’s  elections in 2014. By planting malware on Ukraine’s Central Election Committee servers just  four days before the election, they were able to alter the vote tallying system – which displayed  the tally as in favor of a pro-Russian candidate.  

Russian perpetrators are far from the only threat that the United States’ electoral system  will face this upcoming November. A DOJ press release from November 2021 details an  indictment against two Iranian nationals charged with involvement in a cyber campaign, called  “The Voter Intimidation and Influence Campaign” which was an attempt to undermine and  compromise voters during the 2020 presidential election. With some of the electorate’s  confidence in election integrity already being shaken, cyber campaigns have the power to erode  election structure and pit voters against each other. These attacks can be carried out on a very  wide scale and have the power to affect Americans regardless of location, income, or party  affiliation. 

Chinese hackers have also ramped up their efforts to attack American infrastructure.  Cyberterrorists affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party have been waging campaigns to  infiltrate computer networks of critical industries, including manufacturing, transportation and more. A Wall Street Journal article from late January 2024 quotes director of the U.S.  Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Jen Easterly describing China’s activity thus  far as “likely just the tip of the iceberg”. With November approaching fast, there’s little doubt  that additional hacking and disruption attempts focused on election information systems will  come from Beijing.  

It's imperative that American citizens are wary of the possibility of a cyber-attack being  carried out on them at any moment. The months leading up to an election are always extremely  tense, filled with volumes of media content designed to influence voters one way or the other.  Using trusted media sources for political research, as well as recognizing and avoiding phishing  emails from false campaigns or other entities can go a long way in preventing intimidation  schemes.  

While personal records are governed by each state, every American can and should take  these precautions. With Joe Biden and Donald Trump likely to be the two frontrunning  candidates once again, more misinformation will be available than ever, and campaigns will look  to gain any advantage possible. Russian, Iranian, and Chinese entities are aware of this, and will  seek to destroy the American voting machine and undermine the planet’s longest-standing  democratic electoral process.


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