This year, more than 4 billion voters in 50 countries—around half the world’s population—will go to the polls in the biggest election year in history. The U.S. faces a particularly contentious general election season, with unprecedentedly high stakes for election security.

Our country is under threat from cyberattacks targeting our voting infrastructure and the spread of misinformation fueled by advanced artificial intelligence technologies via social media. These challenges not only undermine the electoral process but can also erode public trust. This isn’t just about safeguarding technology; it’s about preserving the very tenets and foundations of our democracy.

Understanding the depth and breadth of these threats—and the actions we must take to counter them—is critical for every voter, policymaker, and stakeholder in the electoral process.

The threat landscape

Election systems, crucial to our democracy, face escalating threats from nefarious cyber tools and tactics like phishing, malware, and ransomware. These attacks do not merely focus on opportunistic targets and individuals but aim at infrastructure—including voter registration databases, systems for casting and counting votes, and overall election administration. They deliberately attack systems and individuals to undermine the stability of our process.

Election machines are especially vulnerable to malicious deeds by cyber criminals if they are network-connected. Thus, everything from IT systems to individual voting machines can be susceptible to attack. A growing threat that has recently emerged is the fact that the “network” is without a defined border as in past years. Today, devices that show up on the borderless network introduce applications and delivery mechanisms for nefarious payloads!

As this digital battleground evolves, social media and AI-driven activities bring new threat vectors beyond the traditional election infrastructure, creating added concerns and areas of vulnerability.

Strengthening our defenses

A robust and multi-layered defense strategy is essential in response to the escalating threats of cyberattacks and disinformation. Central to this strategy is the need for election officials to achieve an overarching view of their electoral systems’ digital and physical landscapes. This comprehensive visibility enables the early detection and neutralization of threats, safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. Beyond technological fortifications, it’s imperative to bolster the electorate’s ability to navigate the murky waters of online information. Developing digital literacy among voters is crucial, helping them to identify and reject disinformation, thereby preserving the democratic discourse.

The legislative domain is also in flux, with emerging initiatives aimed at reigning in the misuse of AI in political contexts. While these legislative endeavors are still unfolding, they signify a growing consensus on balancing technological innovation with electoral integrity. This juncture calls for a concerted effort across governmental, technological, and civic spheres to devise strategies to defend against cyber and informational threats and reinforce the foundations of our democracy for the digital age.

A robust cyber defense strategy hinges on achieving exhaustive visibility across the entire attack surface. Such panoramic oversight allows election officials to preemptively spot vulnerabilities and proactively mitigate cyber threats.

This all-encompassing view into our electoral systems’ digital and physical facets is not merely a technical goal but a foundational element of democracy’s security. In today’s landscape of sophisticated cyber threats, comprehensively monitoring and defending our election infrastructure is crucial. It prevents unauthorized access, thwarts data manipulation, and bolsters public confidence in the electoral system’s resilience.

Elections in the age of AI

The electoral landscape is set for a significant shift as we approach the first primary election since generative AI burst into mainstream consciousness with OpenAI’s public release in November 2022 of ChatGPT. Generative AI’s ability to produce convincing text, images, and videos presents dual-edged potential: it opens new channels for voter engagement and information dissemination while posing challenges in discerning authentic from manipulated content, amplifying concerns about misinformation’s influence on elections.

The forthcoming elections will test the application of these AI tools and the regulatory frameworks designed to safeguard electoral integrity. Ongoing efforts, including legislative initiatives and technology companies’ policies, aim to mitigate AI’s misuse in political campaigning.

The fact is no one knows what effect AI will end up having on the 2024 election. We’re all holding our breath, doing what we can to protect the process, and hoping for the best. We do know that social media has introduced a delivery mechanism to a broad audience that has created, falsified, and manipulated narratives for ill intent.

And yet, we remain hopeful that simply talking so much about election security as a society will, in some way, help instill confidence in the process. This is absolutely the time for all stakeholders, from public officials to tech companies, to get out in front and reassure voters that they’re doing everything possible to ensure an orderly election season. It will also help immensely if public officials proactively prepare, enabling the ability to provide proof through technology partnerships that the attack surfaces of local entities have been consistently defended and managed in real time. This will help instill confidence that nothing has been tampered with should that be called into question.

Tom Guarente is Vice President, External and Government Affairs, at Armis.

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