» By Adam SCHIFF
This election season will be remembered for many reasons, but we may also end up recalling this election as the one where our democracy came under a sustained and coordinated attack by hackers determined to discredit our system. Americans of all political affiliations should be deeply concerned about this development, which threatens to undermine Americans’ fundamental trust in our democratic institutions.
The leaking of hacked documents has become an ever present feature of this campaign, with leaks targeting the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and current and former senior public officials including former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Personal information about members of Congress and staff was posted online, and internal strategy memos and emails have been posted or leaked to the site Wikileaks among others, often generating headlines and media attention.
These breaches would be disturbing on their own, but they are even more troubling for the strong indications of foreign involvement in some of them, specifically hackers linked to the Russian government.
In the case of the hacking of the DNC, an assessment by a leading cybersecurity firm has convincingly linked the attack on that institution and theft of data that was ultimately leaked online to Russia. The FBI has launched an investigation into these attacks.
Maybe even more troubling, there may have been the efforts to penetrate our electoral system itself by hacking into state voter databases. According to the Dept. of Homeland Security, cybercriminals and criminal hackers “are likely” to continue to target personally identifiable information, “such as that available in voter registration databases.”
The intent of these hackers needs not be to actually change election results – which would be very difficult given the diverse nature of our electoral systems – but it is to sow chaos in our political system, even casting doubt on the validity of election results. In a highly charged political atmosphere, and with irresponsible statements from some candidates alleging the election will be rigged, this is deeply dangerous.
From my position as ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, I have long been concerned about our vulnerability to hackers, particularly highly sophisticated and determined hackers of the sort that attacked the DNC and other institutions. And the findings pointing towards Russian actors fit the profile of their interference in other elections in Europe, where there is a long history of cyberattacks against parties and candidates.
Importantly, the attackers have shown themselves to be willing to not only steal and leak information, but also to doctor it, putting disinformation among true data, making it exceedingly difficult to debunk.
Our political system, like any democracy, requires trust. In order to address the threats to our democracy, especially with hackers targeting our political campaigns and voting systems, the Obama Administration must act.
First, I believe that the Administration should “name and shame” the countries brazenly trying to interfere with our elections. Americans deserve to have a fuller understanding of who is behind these attacks. And the knowledge that the United States will not tolerate interference may discourage future attacks. If the attacks continue to escalate, the Administration must also sanction the responsible parties and make sure the costs of this illicit conduct rise with corresponding severity.
Second, the Administration should work with the international community to establish cyber rules of the road that all countries can abide by and respect. One of the rules must be a firm prohibition against any attempt to manipulate electoral processes or results.
Finally, we must move to protect our democratic institutions and ensure that our elections databases are properly secured and protected. Our election system is governed by states and counties, with many different types of voting technologies and procedures. In some ways, that makes it more difficult for a malicious actor to tamper with our elections, but nonetheless we should have some fundamental ability to audit votes that are cast in physical form. I believe that every voting machine should generate an auditable paper ballot, so that even in the event of a hack or technical malfunction, there could be total confidence that votes were counted correctly.
We must assume that the hacks and leaks will continue this year, and it’s incumbent on us to do everything possible to secure our election system from outside interference and tampering.
Although the Presidential candidates have widely differing opinions of Russia, Putin and the dangers of cyber warfare, Americans of all parties should agree that preserving the trust in our system of democracy is an absolute necessity.
Rep. Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District.