Donald Trump's surprise win in the United States' presidential election could conceivably be attributed to illegal hacking and needs to be investigated, according to a security expert.
A statistical analysis by J Alex Halderman, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan's Center for Computer Security and Society, has shown that in three states there were worrying downturns in votes for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton. Halderman feels voting patterns were particularly odd in counties that use electronic voting machines and which don't use a paper receipt to record votes.
In some cases such counties showed a seven per cent swing against Clinton, compared to votes predicted by polls. That swing was enough to tip the election Trump's way, as he took some states - and their electoral college votes - by a few tens of thousands of votes.
"I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked. But I don’t believe that either one of these seemingly unlikely explanations is overwhelmingly more likely than the other," Halderman writes.
"The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence - paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts."
That electronic voting machines are not designed with security in mind and are easy to hack is well documented. For more than a decade security experts have warned that the machines are susceptible to easy hacks.
That hacking aimed at exposing secret information played a part in the US election is without doubt. A series of leaked emails from the Democratic National Congress that were a key issue for voters, and several election boards had their systems attacked by hackers.
Attacks aimed at influencing elections are not uncommon. Costa Rica investigated such claims, and the Ukrainian government claimed to have found sophisticated election machine hacking code in 2014 that could have altered the course of the vote.
Halderman is clear; the only secure form of voting is on paper, with a viable audit trail. This works well in the UK and Australia, where election nights are busy times as officials index paper ballots on camera. But the US moved early on electronic voting and many machines don’t provide a paper receipt for auditing.
At this stage, the problem is largely moot. The deadline for a legal challenge to the results is very close and there is little appetite for such a fight. Let's not forget, too, that president-elect Donald Trump never ruled out he would not accept losing the election if he felt any fraud was involved. A late recount and allegations of digital deviousness has the potential to turn things ugly stateside. ®