Election securityRansomware Can Interfere with Elections and Fuel Disinformation – Basic Cybersecurity Precautions Are Key to Minimizing the Damage

By Richard Forno

Published 31 October 2020

Government computer systems in Hall County, Georgia, including a voter signature database, were hit by a ransomware attack earlier this fall in the first known ransomware attack on election infrastructure during the 2020 presidential election. Thankfully, county officials reported that the voting process for its citizens was not disrupted. Attacks like these underscore the challenges that cybersecurity experts face daily – and which loom over the upcoming election. As a cybersecurity professional and researcher, I can attest that there is no silver bullet for defeating cyber threats like ransomware. Rather, defending against them comes down to the actions of thousands of IT staff and millions of computer users in organizations large and small across the country by embracing and applying the basic good computing practices and IT procedures that have been promoted for years.

Government computer systems in Hall County, Georgia, including a voter signature database, were hit by a ransomware attack earlier this fall in the first known ransomware attack on election infrastructure during the 2020 presidential election. Thankfully, county officials reported that the voting process for its citizens was not disrupted.

The attack follows on the heels of a ransomware attack last month on eResearchTechnology, a company that provides software used in clinical trials, including trials for COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. Less than a week after the attack in Georgia was revealed, the FBI warned that cyber criminals have unleashed a wave of ransomware attacks targeting hospital information systems.

Attacks like these underscore the challenges that cybersecurity experts face daily – and which loom over the upcoming election. As a cybersecurity professional and researcher, I can attest that there is no silver bullet for defeating cyber threats like ransomware. Rather, defending against them comes down to the actions of thousands of IT staff and millions of computer users in organizations large and small across the country by embracing and applying the basic good computing practices and IT procedures that have been promoted for years.

What is Ransomware?
Ransomware is a form of malicious software, or malware, that typically encrypts a victim’s computer files, holds the files hostage and then demands a payment to send the decryption key that unlocks the files. Individual ransomware payments usually range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with the expectation that a relatively low dollar amount will motivate the victim to quickly pay the attacker to end the incident.

Ransomware attacks frequently begin through email as a typical phishing message purporting to be from someone the potential victim trusts, such as a co-worker or friend. However, emerging types of ransomware exploit existing or recently discovered security vulnerabilities – in other words, they hack in – to gain system access without requiring any user interaction at all.

Once a computer system is compromised, there are many things a ransomware attack can do. But the most common outcome is encrypting a user’s data to hold it for a ransom payment. In other cases, ransomware encrypts a victim’s data and the ransomware’s creator threatens to release personal or sensitive information onto the internet unless the ransom is paid.

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Election security, social media, Russia, disinformation Election security, social media, Russia, disinformation