The barrage of information leaks, state-sponsored espionage and hacktivism related to the U.S. presidential election has had a mixed bag of effects on the race and voter confidence.
For the most part, attacks against organizations supporting both major political parties, extensive email leaks and hacktivism campaigns targeting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have done relatively little to move the needle on polls. But the impact on voter confidence in the system and how it affects turnout on Nov. 8 remains to be seen, especially if a blockbuster revelation drops between today and Election Day.
Researchers at Digital Shadows today published a report that demonstrates a steady decline in voter confidence since 2004, hitting new lows this summer. Backed by statistics from the Pew Research Center, the report suggests there’s angst among voters related to the security of voting systems and concerns over fraud, all of which were exacerbated by Trump’s continued suggestions the election could be rigged.
“If the aim is unrest among the U.S. population, if that was the goal of the actors, I would imagine they would be happy with these activities and it can be a bit dangerous,” said Michael Marriott, research analyst at Digital Shadows.
The Pew numbers demonstrate that 49 percent of voters were “very confident” their vote would be accurately counted in this election, compared to 62 percent in 2004. The Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence attempted to quell those fears with a statement pinning the blame on the Russian government and its alleged attempts to influence the election, in particular, scanning and probing of election systems from servers in Russia.
“The USIC and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assess that it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion. This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place,” officials said in the statement. “States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process.”
The high-profile attacks against the Republican and Democratic national committees, and extensive data dumps from WikiLeaks and other sources, meanwhile, have done little to affect poll numbers, Digital Shadows said.
At the peak of the data dumps and reports of the DNC hack between June 14 and July 29, Clinton was indeed polling at her lowest as the DNC hack, Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks dominated headlines. But the biggest drop in Clinton’s numbers came after July 28 when DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned.
Digital Shadows said the effect was temporary and Clinton has since kept a substantial lead over Trump despite a constant flurry of data dumps from various sources.
Nation-state interference in foreign elections is nothing new, but Digital Shadows points out that the overt nature of the attacks during this year’s campaign signal a new change in tactics of using the media to generate negative attention toward a candidate or the election in general.
“The widespread campaign to disrupt the election and the public nature of the breaches are new,” Marriott said. “Are we approaching a time where this is the norm where we see such public campaigns influence a populace?”
With Election Day 13 days away and given attackers are savvy with the timing of their releases, it’s logical to expect this activity to continue.
“Many of these groups reach out to journalists, give them a sample of information and allow the media to hype it a bit and then time their leak so that when it’s released, they’ve got air cover behind them,” Marriott said. “It helps them sell their wares. Whatever the end goal, they are maturing and timing key releases much better.”