Federal officials on Friday announced hackers targeted 21 state voter registration systems before the 2016 election. And a recent Harvard University study found websites for nearly three dozen states and the District of Columbia were vulnerable to voter identity theft attacks in 2016.
Harvard technology and government professor Latanya Sweeney said the research found vulnerabilities in some voter registration websites, as well as motor vehicle and other government websites.
"We didn't test the state systems by actually changing the data, because we didn't want to do that, and as far as we can tell – and as far as the states have told us – they've never tested them themselves, either," Sweeney said. "But what the paper does talk about is how easy it is to launch such an attack."
Armed with right data, she explained, hackers can change parts of a voter's personal information, such as an address, which could send them to the wrong polling location.
Sweeney said the cost of getting the data needed to impersonate a voter and actually implement an attack ranges from $10,000-$24,000. She said that's inexpensive, considering the possible outcome.
"If you think about how close some of the election results have been, if you were successful in shaving off one or two or five percentage points, you could really have a big impact in the election," Sweeney said.
So, what can individual voters do? Sweeney explained the technology that makes personal information vulnerable is the same that can determine if someone's identity has been compromised.
"Voters should check online to see if their voter registration information is correct, especially as they get closer to an election date," she said. "Like other kinds of identity theft – where you want to check your credit report to see if anybody's been impersonating you, and credit records – that's basically been extended into the voting space."
She said most states have practices in place to detect or prevent an attack on the back end of a system. But the research highlights the need for improvement at the front end of voter information websites.