Spikes tell elections supervisor if website is under attack

Site statistics reveal hacking, fraud

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel designed Seminole County's elections website himself. He also monitors it himself every day, all day.

"If it's at 3 o'clock in the morning and suddenly we have 7,000 visitors to our site, something happened," Ertel said. 

A monitoring company also watches the website around the clock, looking for spikes in traffic.

Monday, on the final day of voter registration for the upcoming August Florida primary election, Ertel said website traffic jumped from the typical 700 people a day to 1,700 visitors. Ertel expected the sudden increase. 

But a flood of traffic on a normal day would cause an alarm.

"Reason No. 1 we look for a spike is if it's an extremely artificial spike, potentially we're getting a denial of service attack on our system," Ertel said. "That's where an entity will try and flood the system with so many requests ... that it crashes the system."

Ertel said he monitors the Seminole County elections website in real-time so he can respond to trouble as it happens.

If an artificial spike is detected, he can block the IP address, or even the entire country from where the attack is originating.

Ertel said the primary reason for a denial-of-service attack aimed to crash the website is to erode trust.

"Everything (in the elections process) needs to be pristine, look good and perfect, otherwise there's distrust in the process," Ertel said.

By examining the site's analytics, Ertel can tell where users are going on the site, from what part of the world they're logging on, and if they're using a desktop, tablet or cellphone.

That information can reveal other types of attacks on the elections system, Ertel said. 

For example, in June, Ertel noticed users in large numbers were logging onto the voter information section of the site. He said that indicated that fake elections mailers were circulating.

"With that, then we can do a social media message saying, 'By the way if you received this in the mail, it's because it's from a political entity, not from us,'" Ertel said.

The federal government just gave Florida $19 million to spend on hardening elections security. Ertel said Seminole County is due to get $316,000 of that money in the next few days.

Ertel said he plans to spend the $316,000 on new secure servers that store voter information, a stronger and more secure election night reporting tool so hackers can't change election results and new computers with protected USB ports.

Ertel said so far, Seminole County's elections website has never been attacked.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.