None of these attacks amounted to much. But from the sprawling war room at United States Cyber Command to those monitoring the election at Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft, experts are watching closely for more “perception hacks.” Those are smaller attacks that can be easily exaggerated into something bigger and potentially seized upon as evidence that the whole voting process is “rigged,” as President Trump has claimed it will be.
The phrase comes up every time Christopher Krebs, the Department of Homeland Security official responsible for making sure voting systems are secure, talks about the biggest vulnerabilities in this election. His worry is not a vast attack but a series of smaller ones, perhaps concentrated in swing states, whose effect is more psychological than real.
Perception hacks are just one of a range of issues occupying election officials and cybersecurity experts in the final days of voting — and their concerns will not end on Election Day.
One theory gaining ground inside American intelligence agencies is that the Russians, having made the point that they remain inside key American systems despite bolstered defenses and new offensive operations by Cyber Command, may sit out the next week — until it is clear whether the vote is close.
The Russian play, under this theory, would be to fan the flames of state-by-state election battles, generating or amplifying claims of fraud that would further undermine American confidence in the integrity of the election process.
The Iranians would continue their playbook, which American intelligence officials see as more akin to vandalism than serious hacking, filled with threats in mangled English.
But American experts have warned local officials that come Nov. 3 the Iranians may seek to paralyze or deface the websites of secretaries of state, affecting the reporting of results, and create the impression of being inside the voting infrastructure even if they never were and the election results have not been compromised.
Here is a look at some of the potential threats and what has been learned so far in a year of behind-the-scenes cyberbattles.