The FBI has discovered that hackers have breached online voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, and have targeted at least two other states. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie: Russian hackers broke into the online bank of Arizona voter data. The FBI has not identified a perpetrator for the Illinois hack, nor has it identified the two other states that were targeted.
In a chaotic news week, this story has been buried underneath a pile of #content about Trump’s Mexico trip, Hillary’s 30 Benghazi emails, various NFL injuries, and whatever is going on with Chris Brown. Meanwhile, these hacks are spreading like a contagion, infecting and weakening the infrastructure of our democracy.
Election hacks are not only possible; they’ve already happened in three countries this year alone. Tens of millions of voters in Mexico, the Philippines, and Turkey had their personal identification information such as names, family members, ID numbers, and addresses exposed. You have already heard of the Panama Papers and the DNC Leaks. Major banks in Qatar and Bangladesh were hacked, too. 2016 might well be remembered as the Year of the Hack.
In Illinois, hackers stole the data of an estimated 200,000 registered voters. Arizona’s attack was caused by malware that infected a state employee’s computer. As far as anyone knows, no votes were changed, but it would be naïve to think that someone would expend the time and effort to hack into a voter system just to look around inside. The Russians did not say “Wow, I wish we could run free and fair elections like the Americans do. We ought to find out how they do it.” This may very well be a test run for hackers to find out how to manipulate voter data come Election Day.
Millennials are digital natives; we grew up willingly handing over our identifying information to MySpace Tom and then Mark Zuckerberg. We found out our SAT scores online, pulled our transcripts from our school’s web site, and applied to college online — and got those acceptance letters via email. If you went through high school and didn’t trust the internet with your data, well, you didn’t have much of a choice but to hand it over anyway. This is part of why we trust that major institutions are handling our data securely — even though we trust those institutions less than our parents and grandparents do.
Two-thirds of us trust our primary bank, and over one-third of millennials say that health insurance companies keep data safe. We out-trust all other age groups by at least 10 points on both measures.
When it comes to government information security, we are less trusting. Gallup has found that only 19 percent of us say that the federal government protects our personal data adequately, compared to 18 percent of us who trust state governments the same way. The numbers are pitifully low, and yet still higher than all other age groups (who average 12 percent and 11 percent on federal and state measures, respectively).
Young conservatives are especially at risk: We are more likely to trust the government’s voting systems, and more likely than our liberal counterparts to vote early. If you’re a College Republican going to school out of state, you’re probably voting absentee. In both situations, your vote will sit in a data management system for at least a few days…a few days that we know hackers might use to break in to the system.
This is not to discourage you from registering or voting. If you vote, there is a risk that your vote might not count – if you don’t vote, it’s a guarantee that your (hypothetical) vote will not count. Voting is still your best bet, not to mention your civic duty. But as you cast your ballot, know that the next president will need to sharpen the federal government’s IT security capabilities, so that it can always be at least one step ahead of the hackers.