As Americans get ready to head to the polls following a raucous and unpredictable presidential campaign, state election agencies are scrambling to secure their voting systems in the wake of an unprecedented wave of cyber attacks. From the Democratic National Committee email leaks to attacks on voter registration databases, cybersecurity has become a major flashpoint for campaign rhetoric and has further strained US relations with Russia, which the Obama administration has accused of orchestrating the operation.
The Ellison Center sat down with Volodymyr Lysenko, a lecturer at the University of Washington who specializes in information science and cybersecurity in Ukraine and Russia, to talk about Moscow’s involvement in the election and to discuss why this year is unique. Dr. Lysenko currently teaches a course through the Ellison Center called Social Media and Social Change in Russia and the Former Soviet Union and has taught courses on cybersecurity.
How is this election different in terms of cybersecurity issues?
The difference is that Russia is so interested in this election. Russia understands that in a couple of years its financial resources will be depleted. It’s very hard for Putin’s regime to survive under current conditions—under sanctions that could be increased, with low oil prices, and with systemic problems in the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on oil and gas. They want to change the strategic situation. They see an opportunity in Trump, who says he respects Putin and doesn’t like that NATO would get unconditional support if Russia attacks the Baltics, for example. Trump has said he would consider recognizing the annexation of Crimea and lift sanctions against Russia. That would be a game-changer for Putin and his regime. That is why they support this one candidate and put so much effort into operations like hacking the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of certain Republicans who don’t support Trump or are critical of Putin.
It’s a game-changer, these cyber attacks. They have attacked voter registration lists. If they had a chance to access those, they could try to erase those who registered as Democrats, who will probably vote for the person running who opposes Russia’s favorite candidate. They would be able to change the balance of voting that way.
We also see a lot of pro-Trump trolls online. A lot of them speak bad English and pretend to be American supporters of Trump. We have evidence that those are also orchestrated by Russia. The author of a well-known New York Times article about Russian trolls said that he has seen the same accounts that were pro-Putin a year ago become pro-Trump accounts.
“But of course, it all comes down to confidence. If the attackers are able to damage confidence in American democracy, then they are accomplishing at least part of their goal.”
We haven’t seen these types of attacks during previous US elections. Why is Russia taking such aggressive measures this time around?
Russia has so much at stake in this election, so they are actively involved. You have to remember that 2012 was before Russian aggression against Ukraine, before sanctions, before Russia started having serious problems with its economy. In 2012, we had very high oil prices. Russia was much more prosperous. But since the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the situation has become radically worse for Russia, and they are blaming the US for all of their problems.
Is this something that Russia has tried in other countries?
Yes, of course. In 2014, Russian hackers tried to influence the results of the Ukrainian presidential election. They hacked into the servers of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. But because of efforts by CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team of Ukraine), the commission was able to remove malware from the systems in the last hours before the results came out. A Russian-backed group called CyberBerkut took responsibility for this attack. We know that CyberBerkut is just a front for Russian secret services—either the GRU or FSB.
Do you think that was a rehearsal for what is happening now?
Technically, no, because Ukrainian and American voting systems are very different, but tactically and strategically, yes. As systems become more computerized, they become more vulnerable to cyber attacks. As early as 2004, the Ukrainian election system was compromised. It was done by people who were backing Yanukovych. Putin had congratulated him a couple of times on winning that election, and it was a huge blow when he eventually lost. Russia put a lot of effort into getting him into power, and he eventually won in 2010. After that, Ukrainian security systems degraded significantly. Efforts were streamlined to make Ukraine vulnerable to Russian attacks.
What can states do to bolster security and prevent attacks?
There is a lot they can do from a technical perspective. They can create firewalls. They can decouple voting systems from the internet. They can duplicate the voter databases on separate hard drives or multiple storage devices.
Is there really a credible threat to the integrity of the election? Isn’t most vote counting done by machine or by hand?
The threat is not to vote counting. They might be able to affect the list of voters. They have already tried to interfere with voter registration systems. But of course, it all comes down to confidence. If the attackers are able to damage confidence in American democracy, then they are accomplishing at least part of their goal.
We have about two weeks left until the election. What do you expect?
I expect more leaks. I think Russia will try everything it can to influence the election.
As someone who has observed what Russian hackers have done elsewhere, are you surprised by what is happening in the US?
No, of course not. It is still Putin’s regime. He has just become more experienced. After the attacks against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, when the ground attack was supported by a cyber operation, we have seen a steady increase in cyber operations. There was a huge number of attacks during what happened in Ukraine in 2014, and now we see attacks against the US. The sophistication and magnitude is just increasing.
We know that it’s coming from Russia. I’m so surprised that, after the accusations made by American security officials, one of the candidates is using these materials to attack the other candidate, knowing that these materials were stolen by Russian hackers. If Russia is doing it, they are doing it because they are acting as a threat to the United States. So this candidate should be more literate and figure out who is really an adversary.