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10.5 Cognitive Election Hacking

Labeled by researchers as cognitive hacking [73], the potential for misinformation and subterfuge attacks using Internet-based technologies is as rich as one's imagination. We have already discussed several techniques that may be used to surreptitiously lure users to locations other than a legitimate campaign's web site. These same techniques can be used to spread misleading, inaccurate, and outright false information.

So far, we have discussed typo and cousin domain names that users may visit accidentally when attempting to browse to a legitimate web site. We have also discussed phishing and spam, which have the potential to lure users to web sites by impersonating legitimate candidate web sites. Finally, we have discussed malicious code and the role that it may play in manipulating a user's desktop experience before the user even reaches the intended destination.

The security of a campaign's web site plays another vital role in determining voters' faith in the election process. The breach of a legitimate candidate's web site, for example, would allow an attacker to have direct control over all content viewed by visitors to that web site. This may allow for the posting of misinformation or, worse, the deployment of malicious code to unsecured visitors.

Examples of misinformation about a specific candidate might include a false report about the decision by a candidate to drop out of the race, a fake scandal, and phony legal or health issues. It might also take the form of subtle information that could be portrayed as legitimate, such as a change in a candidate's position on a particular subject, resulting in abandonment of the candidate by voters who feel strongly about that issue.

Attempts to deceive voters through the spread of misinformation are not new. In fact, numerous cases have been documented in past elections using traditional forms of communication [358]. These include campaigns aimed at intimidating minorities and individuals with criminal records, attempts to announce erroneous voting dates, and many other tactics resulting in voter confusion.

During the 2006 election, 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, California, received misleading letters warning them that it was illegal for immigrants to vote in the election and that doing so would result in their incarceration and deportation. In his testimony before congress, John Trasviña, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), discussed this use of misinformation as an example of voter suppression:

  • First, the Orange County letter falsely advised prospective voters that immigrants who vote in federal elections are committing a crime that can result in incarceration and possible deportation. This is a false and deceptive statement: Naturalized immigrants who are otherwise eligible to vote are free to vote in federal elections without fear of penalties (including but not limited to incarceration and/or deportation). Second, the letter stated that "the U.S. government is installing a new computerized system to verify names of all newly registered voters who participate in the elections in October and November. Organizations against emigration will be able to request information from this new computerized system." Again, the letter adopts an intimidating tone based upon false information in an apparent attempt to undermine voter confidence within the targeted group of voters. Finally, the letter stated that "[n]ot like in Mexico, here there is no benefit to voting." This letter, representing a coordinated and extensive effort to suppress the Latino vote in the days leading up to a congressional election, has been traced to a candidate running for the congressional seat in the district in which the affected voters live.12

Another case of deception was targeted at college students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2004 [355]. Canvassers, posing as petitioners for such topics as medical marijuana and auto insurance rates, gathered signatures from students that, unknown to them, resulted in a change to their party affiliation and polling location.

Push polling is one technique that lends itself extremely well to Internet-based technologies. In push polling, an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the views of voters under the guise of conducting a poll. The poll, in many cases, poses a question by stating inaccurate or false information as part of the question. One well-known push poll occurred in the 2000 Republican Party primary.13 Voters in South Carolina were asked, "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" In this case, the poll's allegation had no substance, but was heard by thousands of primary voters. McCain and his wife had, in fact, adopted a Bangladeshi girl.

A bill known as the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 200714 seeks to make these attacks illegal. Currently waiting to be heard in the Senate, it is possible that this bill might be in place for the 2008 federal election, making deceptive tactics such as these illegal, and introducing a maximum penalty of up to 5 years in prison for offenders. This legislation is likely to apply to deceptive practices whether they are performed using traditional communication mechanisms or Internet-based technologies.

While the introduction of such policies is important and provides a well-defined guideline under which to prosecute offenders, only time will tell to what extent legislation will succeed in controlling these acts. As we have seen in some areas, such as the policies developed to outlaw the transmission of spam email, regulations have only marginal effectiveness in reducing the problem. Even today, more than 50% of all email sent on the Internet is purported to consist of spam [401]. There is no reason to doubt that the type of deception and intimidation discussed will be equally successful on the Internet.

The challenge with Internet-based technologies is the ease with which such an attack may be perpetrated. Whereas traditional communication media may have required an organized effort to commit an attack, the Internet allows a single attacker to realize the benefits of automation and scale that previously did not exist. As such, one person has the potential to cause widespread disruption, with comparably little effort.

Historically, some of the most successful misinformation attacks on the Internet have been motivated by profit. Pump-and-dump schemes [369], for example, have become an extremely common form of spam. These schemes involve the promotion of a company's stock through the issuance of false and misleading statements. After the stock price rises owing to renewed interest from the message's recipients, the perpetrators sell their own stock for a substantial profit.

One significant surge of pump-and-dump emails that was observed in 2006 was attributed to a bot network, operated by Russian fraudsters [268]. In this attack, 70,000 infected computers spread across 166 countries were organized into a bot network that was used to send out unsolicited stock-promoting spam. Such a network could easily be directed to send any form of email, including disinformation and fallacies related to a candidate, voters, and the election itself. Chapter 7 discusses botnets and their applications in more detail.

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