Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday downplayed concerns about malicious hackers influencing U.S. elections amid rising fears about foreign actors trying to wreak havoc on Election Day.
While hackers in the U.S. or abroad might be able to steal data from individual election officials, Johnson said at an event hosted by The Atlantic, they would not be able to skew the overall vote count.
“It would be very difficult through any sort of cyber intrusion to alter the ballot count, simply because it is so decentralized and so vast,” he said, noting the series of state, local and county systems involved in running elections. “It would be very difficult to alter the count.”
Johnson was responding to new fears about hackers from Russia, in particular, whom intelligence officials are reportedly investigating over suspected efforts to disrupt the election. The FBI is separately investigating hacks at election sites in Arizona and Illinois, and Russia is believed to be behind this summer’s release of massive data files from the Democratic National Committee.
Despite Johnson’s claims, however, hackers would not necessarily need to alter a particular vote count in order to inject chaos into the U.S. electoral system.
Merely tainting the integrity of the voting system might be enough to sow discord in the U.S on Election Day. In other words, even if hackers do nothing, simply claiming to have altered the results could cause the public to doubt the results.
And hackers might be able to alter ballot counts in swing districts where the outcome might have oversized importance.
The DHS has reached out to help election offices maintain appropriate cyber defenses, including offering details about how to share information about potential hackers and erect tough barriers.
But Johnson on Thursday tried to shoot down allegations from some conservative websites that the department is trying to mount a “federal takeover” of the election process.
“What we do in Homeland Security, in cybersecurity, is offer assistance,” he said.