Q&A: Sam Houston State University cyber forensics intelligence expert talks foreign election hacking ahead of Nov. 3

Less than a week ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, Cihan Varol, an associate professor with Sam Houston State University's Cyber Forensics Intelligence Center, shared insight on foreign election hacking and what it means for voters. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Less than a week ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, Cihan Varol, an associate professor with Sam Houston State University's Cyber Forensics Intelligence Center, shared insight on foreign election hacking and what it means for voters. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Less than a week ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, Cihan Varol, an associate professor with Sam Houston State University's Cyber Forensics Intelligence Center, shared insight on foreign election hacking and what it means for voters. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Less than a week ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, Cihan Varol, an associate professor with Sam Houston State University's Cyber Forensics Intelligence Center, shared insight on foreign election hacking and what it means for voters.

According to Varol,
if a foreign or domestic cyber actor attempts to disrupt, manipulate, destroy or affect the process of the election by using cyberattack practices, this constitutes an election interference; election hacking refers to breaches that are intended to manipulate voter data, change the vote tally or discredit the results. Both types of attacks are tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agencies, which regularly meet with local election officials to brief for potential threats.

Varol added security measures include sensors on every state's network to monitor for cyberattacks, and once vulnerabilities are detected, they are patched as soon as possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What impact can foreign election hacking have on election outcomes? Are there any specific past examples that you could share?


There is a very slim chance that the hackers can change vote count, but they can definitely influence people to believe that they did manipulate it. If election fraud is going to happen, it'll be because of disinformation. For instance, recently hackers on a Russian forum posted that they had stolen data on voters in Michigan, which raised concerns. Although it is a privacy issue—exposure of Personally Identifiable Information—it has no direct way of changing the vote tally. However, it has the potential to make people not vote if they start to believe that the election is hacked.

Has foreign election hacking always been a concern, or has it become more prevalent in recent election cycles? Why do you think that is?

This was always a concern, but with the recent magnitude of cyber attacks, such as WannaCry, StuxNext, Equifax and Target, not only the attackers increased their attempts after successful breaches, but also the government entities increased their attention for a secure election.

How has election security changed over the past couple of decades? Do you think elections have become more or less secure? Why?

With the increased use of social media and online campaigning, there are more ways to interfere with the elections. If successful, attackers can prevent people to not go for voting. However, the security of the election has not changed much. Still, in order to change the vote tally, one needs to either hack the voting machines in the poll locations or attack the communication lines. While it may be attractive to some foreign entities to manipulate the results, the system is getting secured each day via patching the vulnerabilities.

Should voters be concerned about foreign election hacking? Why or why not?

At the very least they should be concerned. According to several sources, voter data was obtained by foreign entities. Even though they may not able to change the outcome of the election, they still have Personally Identifiable Information, which is protected by a combination of federal laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, etc., that is a concern of losing one's privacy.

What do you think needs to be done in future election cycles to deter foreign election hacking?

Cybersecurity standards need to be tightened. Current security assessment standards of ISO 27001, PCI DSS, FedRAMP, even the comprehensive Cloud Security Alliance Security, Trust, and Assurance Registry standards do not emphasize the importance of digital forensics in their framework. Clarifying which logs should be acquired, analyzed and reported in a forensically sound manner is crucial to protect our elections. Any evidence that is not collected by the norms of the acquisition procedures or not analyzed according to the principles of digital evidence handling will be dismissed by the court. Therefore, security standards need to have a section on the digital forensics aspect specifically regulating data/log storage and evidence handling that should be implemented by the government.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There is still an enormous workforce need in cybersecurity. Because of the shortage of personnel, companies, government, and our elections are under more cyberattack threats than yesterday. Therefore, not only do we need to increase the number of security experts, but also move toward more artificial intelligence solutions.
By Hannah Zedaker
Born and raised in Cypress, Texas, Hannah Zedaker graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a minor in political science. She began as an intern with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 and was hired upon graduation as a reporter for The Woodlands edition in May 2016. In January 2019, she was promoted to serve as the editor of the Spring/Klein edition where she covers Spring ISD and Harris County Commissioners Court, in addition to business, development and transportation news.


MOST RECENT

The convenience store chain is known for its Slurpees and self-serve soda fountains. (Courtesy 7-Eleven)
7-Eleven, Laredo Taco Company now open at Hwy. 249, Spring Cypress

The new location features a fueling station, car wash and beer cave.

The Texas Central rail connection from Dallas to Houston will feature a bullet train similar to this one. (Courtesy Texas Central Partners/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas Supreme Court declines to review high-speed rail case, freeing company up to use eminent domain

Texas Central, the company looking to build a 236-mile high-speed rail line connecting Houston and Dallas, has been given a big win in an ongoing legal battle over whether the company is legally recognized as a "railroad company" under state law.

This area is flood-prone due to the flat and slow draining topography and clay soils that do not readily soak up excess rainfall. (Courtesy Harris County Flood Control District)
Flood Control District presents three versions of TC Jester Stormwater Detention Basin, seeking public input

The recommended basin would hold about 300 million gallons of stormwater.

ribbon cutting
Nearly $400M project to boost Houston-area water supply by up to 500M gallons a day

The project has been in development for over 50 years and broke ground in 2017.

Lone Star College has been approved for additional baccalaureate programs following House Bill 3348 being signed June 16. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Lone Star College approved for additional baccalaureate programs

Lone Star College can now have up to five bachelor programs, up from its current three.

Following Hurricane Harvey, debris lined the streets in many parts of Harris County. (Danica Lloyd/Community Impact Newspaper)
After Department of Housing and Urban Development denies request, Texas General Land Office drafting plan to subaward Harris County $750M for flood mitigation

The Texas General Land Office now plans to subaward Harris County flood mitigation funding after the county was left out of recent Hurricane Harvey relief funds.

Spring ISD announced June 16 that the district would no longer be offering its virtual academy for the 2021-22 school year. (Courtesy Canva)
Spring ISD nixes virtual academy for the 2021-22 school year

Many school districts throughout the state have had to alter or cancel their plans to provide distance learning in the coming school year after House Bill 1468, which would have ensured funding for districts for each student enrolled in online-only classes, failed to pass in the 2021 legislative session.

Harris County Pets facilitates pet adoptions, foster placements and more. (Courtesy Harris County Pets)
Harris County Pets temporarily waives adoption fees to control increase of population

Harris County Pets has exceeded its capacity to house its growing pet population, officials said.

Following the 87th Texas Legislature's failure to pass House Bill 1468, Klein ISD will not be able to launch the Klein Virtual Academy in the 2021-22 school year, district officials announced June 15. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Lacking state funding, Klein ISD cancels plans to launch virtual academy in 2021-22

Following the 87th Texas Legislature's failure to pass House Bill 1468, Klein ISD will not be able to launch the Klein Virtual Academy in the 2021-22 school year, district officials announced June 15.

Americans spent 44% more shopping on websites, including Amazon, in 2020 than in 2019. (Courtesy Amazon)
Surge in online shopping strains Houston’s distribution channels

Online spending in the U.S. was up 44% from 2019 to 2020, and transportation expert Bill Eisele said this uptick has put a strain on the region’s transportation system.

According to county officials, 40% of the $125 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Harvey took place within Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas General Land Office says it is 'not feasible' to request $750M in federal flood aid within 30 days

Houston-area officials ask for 30-day-dealine on the Texas General Land Office's formal request for $750 million in federal flood aid funding, but GLO says it is not possible.