When we think of critical infrastructure, we tend to think about physical structures, roads, bridges, utilities and ports. The cyber age changed that perception to include invisible code, the ones and zeros that zip around us, connecting everything to, well, everything else. But with that immense connectivity comes inherent vulnerability, and it’s not just about the impact on physical infrastructure.
The recent dump by Wikileaks of embarrassing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) may have ended the careers of several DNC staffers and caused more eyebrows to be raised at the collusion between the party’s leadership and the Clinton campaign to undermine Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. It also further proved how outside forces can impact a political race.
That’s why DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s recent comments about our elections being a critical infrastructure are right on the money. They are. As any elementary history or political science student can tell you, “elections have consequences,” as they can change the direction, policies and attitude of a country in an instant. So when an outside force such as an “October surprise” or late-breaking news event occurs, it can change the attitude of an electorate fairly quickly. Which is why the threat of a foreign actor, or even a criminal one, cannot be underestimated or ignored.
In the less than 100 days we have before the 45th President of the United States, Sec. Johnson and his team have added one more challenge to their Herculean challenge of securing the homeland. Pulling together the elite of the IT, cyber, legal and electoral community to safeguard an electoral process that has already seen more jaw-dropping moments may be the biggest challenge DHS has ever faced.
Confidence by the American public in government is not high, and there is more than enough reason why sizable chunks of the country’s voters think the system is rigged for one interest over another. The world has seen its share of suspect elections, and they usually happen in places where some type of tyranny reigns (e.g. Russia, Syria, North Korea). When fraudulent results occur, it undermines not only the legitimacy of those who claim elected office but the integrity of the institutions they lead.
American voters have seen the dead vote in Chicago, hanging chads in Florida, and even coin tosses decide elections. But having a remote hacker at a keyboard swing a race is something no one wants to see happen.
Every one of us is vulnerable to a hack. My family and I have been struck several times, but as frustrating as those occasions have been, it is my vote that is sacrosanct. It was won by patriots that sacrificed lives, limbs and treasure to secure the freedoms that allow me to vote. Like any other voter, I only want to give my vote to a candidate that I believe can secure a brighter future for my country and family. Knowing that someone could switch that vote from their keyboard or any other type of fraudulent action is as disturbing as any other threat against my community or my country.
Responding to natural disasters, screening passengers, and patrolling borders and ports are all substantial challenges in their own right, but when the keystrokes from a remote location can shape the future of the country that leads the free world, the threat and challenge is vastly bigger. That is the threat we face today, and Jeh Johnson and DHS’ job just got a lot tougher and with even greater consequences.