Much of this year's election cycle has centered around the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, especially U.S. allegations that Russia is using cyberattacks to disrupt the democratic process. But the true nature of the threat is a little different than most Americans imagine.
Last week, the Obama administration accused senior Russian officials of authorizing hacks into the Democratic National Committee and other targets. They also pointed to "scanning and probing" of online election rolls in some states that seemed to be coming from Russian servers.
The U.S. government may be reticent about retaliating against Russia with its own cyberattacks right now, according to The New York Times, because Russia could come back to disrupt the U.S. elections next month. The Times wrote, "Attacks on online voter registration rolls could sow chaos at polling places, and the election infrastructure has never truly been tested against a power like Russia."
However, several cybersecurity experts we spoke with suggested the harm that could be caused by Russian attacks would be more psychological than anything else. According to a statement released last week by the U.S. intelligence community and Department of Homeland Security, the federal government has determined it would be "extremely difficult" for even a nation-state to use cyberattacks to alter actual ballot counts in America's decentralized election system.
"It's not clear whether these attacks could change the integrity of the data," said Rahul Telang, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the economics of information security and privacy. "The storyline that someone was trying to access these systems is more damaging than any actual damage to the data."
Most state voting systems still maintain a paper trail and other checks and balances, but it would take only one perceived success to introduce doubt about the process for many Americans. In a September poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, half of Donald Trump's supporters already aren't confident that the "votes for president across the country will be accurately counted this year."