Ex-Homeland Security Chief: 3 nightmare scenarios could play out before the election

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·5-min read

With the 2020 election fast approaching, Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, says three potential nightmare scenarios could play out as Americans head to the polls.

Chertoff, co-founder and chairman of the cyber security risk management firm Chertoff Group, told Yahoo Finance on Friday that he worries about three “buckets” of risk: cyber attacks that could “gum up the works” on Election Day; violence and intimidation; and efforts to undermine the results of the election after the fact.

Cyber attacks could take out polling stations

Chertoff told Yahoo Finance’s “The Ticker” that he fears a cyber attack could take down voting locations, throwing a wrench into the works and deliberately slowing the voting process.

“When people show up at the polls and the poll workers want to check laptops to make sure the person is registered, if a database they are looking to has been attacked with ransomware and it is encrypted and shut down, there’s going to be a significant delay and a real problem,” he said.

“They’ll have to take all provisional ballots, and that will really gum the works up.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Michael Chertoff, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of The Chertoff Group, speaks onstage during the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 23: Michael Chertoff, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of The Chertoff Group, speaks onstage during the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

Ransomware, a form of cyber attack, usually spreads through fraudulent emails. When a person clicks a link in the email or opens a document, they inadvertently infect their computer, locking down the entire system and encrypting all of their data. A cyber criminal then contacts the victim and tells them the only way they can get their data back is to pay a ransom.

Of course, cyber criminals are still just criminals, so there’s never a guarantee the attacker will provide a key to decrypt your data. Law enforcement discourages paying any ransom, as it emboldens such criminals.

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Chertoff, however, says that election boards could protect polling stations by having backup systems that are disconnected from the internet, and can’t be hit by online cyber attacks. Poll workers could then turn to those backup laptops if their primary computers are compromised, averting a slowdown at the polls.

Violent actors may attempt to intimidate voters

Beyond cyber attacks, Chertoff says violence could be a serious issue during the 2020 election.

“...I think increasingly, we are getting concerned about the possibility of unofficial, armed groups deciding they want to appoint themself as poll watchers and essentially intimidating people in certain areas to stop them from voting,” he said.

The potential for voter intimidation came screaming to the forefront when President Donald Trump, during the first presidential debate, told a violent, ultra-right wing group, The Proud Boys, to “Stand back, and stand by.”

The comment was seen by some as an endorsement of the group, and has stoked fears that the organization, which has ties to white supremacy and holds up misogyny as an ideal, will seek to prevent voters from casting their ballots.

A Proud Boy carries a gun during a gathering at a local park to remember Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron J. Danielson, who was shot dead in Portland, Oregon after street clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and counter-demonstrators, in Vancouver, Washington, U.S. September 5, 2020.  REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
A Proud Boy carries a gun during a gathering at a local park in Vancouver, Washington, U.S. September 5, 2020. (Image: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs)

“I know what I have been hearing and reading, many of the cities and states now understanding they need to be prepared to meet with that either by expanding the perimeter of the balloting area so people can't get close, and also by having law enforcement prepared to intervene … And as we saw in the case of Governor Whitmer, to have the FBI give a warning when they are seeing something that is risky,” Chertoff said.

Chertoff was referring to the recently uncovered plot by a group of right-wing militiamen who sought to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as part of an attempt to overthrow the government and force her to stand trial for treason.

Whitmer, who was on Joe Biden’s short list for vice president picks, has been a regular target of Trump for her lockdown orders seeking to halt the spread of the coronavirus in the state. He famously tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” in what was seen as a show of support for protesters angry about the lockdown.

According to The Detroit Free Press, though, the plot was already in motion before Trump’s tweet.

Questioning the integrity of the election

Finally, Chertoff says some kind of move to discredit the election could become a major issue, especially if the large number of mail-in votes this year cause delays.

Trump has repeatedly raised the specter of widespread mail-in voter fraud, despite the fact that mail-in ballots are the same as absentee ballots, which Trump himself uses, as the Associated Press reported last month.

“If we have one of the candidates out there saying the election is being stolen, that could create a lot of skepticism and again maybe even some violent activity,” he said. “That's why it's important to be very transparent and patient about the process.”

Whether President Trump accepts the outcome of the election, something he has tiptoed around multiple times, remains to be seen.

Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com over via encrypted mail at danielphowley@protonmail.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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