November Surprise: Will it be a cyber terror attack?

No matter who you support on November 8th, there’s little contest that this is one of the most contentious elections in recent memory. Part of the reason for that contentiousness may be the involvement of foreign powers and hacker groups. There might be reason to believe that the worst is yet to come.

International relations between the US and Russia certainly aren’t at their friendliest. Russia’s involvement in the WikiLeaks publication of Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s e-mails is at least a possibility, and Secretary Clinton has not been shy about publicly pointing that out. Recent cyber-attacks have shut down Twitter, Spotify, and Reddit. The US is certainly vulnerable to a large-scale cyber-attack, and the responses to data leaks like Yahoo illustrate how devastating such an attack could be to the American economy.

Despite all this, it seems unlikely that a cyber-attack would target the election apparatus itself. For one, the election machines and regulations are controlled at the state level. Voter records are maintained at both the state and county level. That means hackers would have to compromise hundreds of different systems, each using different technology, to make a meaningful impact on the election. It’s far more likely that bad weather will affect the outcome of the election than will foreign cyber warfare.

More realistically, a cyber-attack could target the media and create serious confusion. Planting a false story on the Associated Press wire with misleading election totals could have far-reaching consequences. In a news environment where up-to-the-minute information is vital, like in election coverage, a story on the wire is unlikely to get rigorous fact checking before being reported. This could lead news organizations to call states or elections incorrectly. Such calls have a measurable impact on voter turnout, as people are unwilling to stand in line to vote if they think it won’t make a difference. Erroneous reporting would also undermine faith in the election process, giving rise to conspiracy theories about the origin of the original story and the motivations behind its correction. Media trust is already very low, and a compromising cyber-attack could further erode America’s faith in the democratic process.

Even worse, an attack doesn’t need to happen to cause tremendous damage to America’s faith in the democratic process. The appearance of influence, coupled with the already acrimonious rhetoric surrounding the election process, could create a crisis of legitimacy for the next president. It’s unlikely that would cause immediate, serious consequences, but it would seriously undermine the next president’s ability to govern. The 114th Congress set a record for least amount of legislation passed. If there are serious doubts about the legitimacy of the election, the 115th Congress could easily break that record.

That’s the real danger of these cyber-attacks. It’s unlikely that they would succeed in influencing the election process, but they could prevent whoever is elected from governing. That would accomplish the aims of foreign governments seeking to undermine America.


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