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Big threat to our nation: An election-night hack

For Carmen Medina, the biggest threat facing our nation today is the "super-empowered individual."

The former CIA deputy director of intelligence joined CNBC's Squawk Box team Tuesday to discuss intelligence, cybersecurity, the geopolitical situation and the fight against terrorism. Later today she will be at CNBC's first-ever Net/Net Summit: Promoting Innovation and Managing Change, at the New York Stock Exchange. The summit examines the ways top companies and executives are promoting and managing innovation, responding to rapid change and using technology to accelerate growth.

The summit comes just days after the massive DDoS attack on the internet domain directory Dyn on Oct. 21, in which hackers managed to knock offline a number of popular websites, including Twitter, Netflix, PayPal, Amazon and Spotify. What made this attack so disturbing is that it appears to have been carried out through hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices, such as cameras, baby monitors and routers.

"Just about anybody with decent computer literacy could pull something off like that," said Medina, who has 32 years in the intelligence field. She added: "The attacks last week could very well have been disaffected gamers."

Voters cast ballots as early absentee voting began ahead of the U.S. presidential election in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2016.
Aaron Josefczyk | Reuters
Voters cast ballots as early absentee voting began ahead of the U.S. presidential election in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2016.

The biggest threat facing our nation right now could involve election night, she said. "You could have a series of cyberattacks that, lets say on election night, denial-of-service attacks on state election boards and major news outlets that would make it impossible to access returns would cast this sort of uncertainty, distrust, about the election process."

As a leader in the analytics directorate, Medina has vast experience dealing with briefing CEOs and government officials about tech vulnerabilities. Her advice: "Two things I would tell you. First, you got to understand how that person absorbs information. If that person is emotional, you have to brief with some emotional resonance. And second, bad news — you've got to deliver bad news early and often. I think a lot of people when they are briefing their superior, they try to sugarcoat the bad news, and in today's world that's a mistake."

Speaking later on Tuesday from the Net/Net event in New York City, Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said concerns about hacks like the ones attributed to the Russians against the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta are legitimate.

"They're just enough to create doubt and uncertainty about what you can trust in these incredibly complex systems," Segal said. "I don't think it's very likely they could change the outcome of elections. ... But you can create enough doubt and uncertainty that you can create a level of chaos that we don't really want."