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2022 US midterm elections attack analysis


6 min read
Protecting election groups during the 2022 US midterm elections.

Through Cloudflare’s Impact programs, we provide cyber security products to help protect access to authoritative voting information and the security of sensitive voter data. Two core programs in this space are the Athenian Project, dedicated to protecting state and local governments that run elections, and Cloudflare for Campaigns, a project with a suite of Cloudflare products to secure political campaigns’ and state parties’ websites and internal teams.

However, the weeks ahead of the elections, and Election Day itself, were not entirely devoid of attacks. Using data from Cloudflare Radar, which showcases global Internet traffic, attack, and technology trends and insights, we can explore traffic patterns, attack types, and top attack sources associated with both Athenian Project and Cloudflare for Campaigns participants.

For both programs, overall traffic volume unsurprisingly ramped up as Election Day approached. SQL Injection (SQLi) and HTTP Anomaly attacks were the two largest categories of attacks mitigated by Cloudflare’s Web Application Firewall (WAF), and the United States was the largest source of observed attacks — see more on this last point below.

Below, we explore the trends seen across both customer sets from October 1, 2022, through Election Day on November 8.

Athenian Project

Throughout October, daily peak traffic volumes effectively doubled over the course of the month, with a weekday/weekend pattern also clearly visible. However, significant traffic growth is visible on Monday, November 7, and Tuesday, November 8 (Election Day), with Monday’s peak just under 2x October’s peaks, while Tuesday saw two peaks, one just under 4x higher than October peaks, while the other was just over 4x higher. Zooming in, the first peak was at 1300 UTC (0800 Eastern time, 0500 Pacific time), while the second was at 0400 UTC (2300 Eastern time, 2000 Pacific time). The first one appears to be aligned with the polls opening on the East Coast, while the second appears to be aligned with the time that the polls closed on the West Coast.

However, aggregating the traffic here presents a somewhat misleading picture. While both spikes were due to increased traffic across multiple customer sites, the second one was exacerbated by a massive increase in traffic for a single customer. Regardless, the increased traffic clearly shows that voters turned to local government sites around Election Day.

Despite this increase in overall traffic, attack traffic mitigated by Cloudflare’s Web Application Firewall (WAF) remained remarkably consistent throughout October and into November, as seen in the graph below. The obvious exception was an attack that occurred on Monday, October 10. This attack targeted a single Athenian Project participant, and was mitigated by rate limiting the requests.

SQL injection (SQLi) attacks saw significant growth in volume in the week and a half ahead of Election Day, along with an earlier significant spike on October 24. While the last weekend in October (October 29 and 30) saw significant SQLi attack activity, the weekend of November 5 and 6 was comparatively quiet. However, those attacks ramped up again heading into and on Election Day, as seen in the graph below.

Attempted attacks mitigated with the HTTP Anomaly ruleset also ramped up in the week ahead of Election Day, though to a much lesser extent than SQLi attacks. As the graph below shows, the biggest spikes were seen on October 31/November 1, and just after midnight UTC on November 4 (late afternoon to early evening in the US). Related request volume also grew heading into Election Day, but without significant short-duration spikes. There is also a brief but significant attack clearly visible on the graph on October 10. However, it occurred several hours after the rate limited attack referenced above — it is not clear if the two are related.

The distribution of attacks over the surveyed period from October 1 through November 9 shows that those categorized as SQLi and HTTP Anomaly were responsible for just over two-thirds of WAF-mitigated requests. Nearly 14% were categorized as “Software Specific,” which includes attacks related to specific CVEs. The balance of the attacks were mitigated by WAF rules in categories including File Inclusion, XSS (Cross Site Scripting), Directory Traversal, and Command Injection.

Media reports suggest that foreign adversaries actively try to interfere with elections in the United States. While this may be the case, analysis of the mitigated attacks targeting Athenian Project customers found that over 95% of the mitigated requests (attacks) came from IP addresses that geolocate to the United States. However, that does not mean that the attackers themselves are necessarily located in the country, but rather that they appear to be using compromised systems and proxies within the United States to launch their attacks against these sites protected by Cloudflare.

Cloudflare for Campaigns

In contrast to Athenian Project participants, traffic to candidate sites that are participants in Cloudflare for Campaigns began to grow several weeks ahead of Election Day. The graph below shows a noticeable increase (~50%) in peak traffic volumes starting on October 12, with an additional growth (50-100%) starting a week later. Traffic to these sites appeared to quiet a bit toward the end of October, but saw significant growth again heading into, and during, Election Day.

However, once again, this aggregate traffic data presents something of a misleading picture, as one candidate site saw multiple times more traffic than the other participating sites. While those other sites saw similar shifts in traffic as well, they were dwarfed by those experienced by the outlier site.

The WAF-mitigated traffic trend for campaign sites followed a similar pattern to the overall traffic. As the graph below shows, attack traffic also began to increase around October 19, with a further ramp near the end of the month. The October 27 spike visible in the graph was due to an attack targeting a single customer’s site, and was addressed using “Security Level” mitigation techniques, which uses IP reputation information to decide if and how to present challenges for incoming requests.

The top two rule categories, HTTP Anomaly and SQLi, together accounted for nearly three-quarters of the mitigated requests, and Directory Traversal attacks were just under 10% of mitigated requests for this customer set. The HTTP Anomaly and Directory Traversal percentages were higher than those for attacks targeting Athenian Project participants, while the SQLi percentage was slightly lower.

Once again, a majority of the WAF-mitigated attacks came from IP addresses in the United States. However, among Cloudflare for Campaigns participants, the United States only accounted for 55% of attacks, significantly lower than the 95% seen for Athenian Project participants. The balance is spread across a long tail of countries, with allies including Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom among the top five. As noted above, however, the attackers may be elsewhere, and are using botnets or other compromised systems in these countries to launch attacks.

Improving security with data

We are proud to be trusted by local governments, campaigns, state parties, and voting rights organizations to protect their websites and provide uninterrupted access to information and trusted election results. Sharing information about the threats facing these websites helps us further support their valuable work by enabling them, and other participants in the election space, to take proactive steps to improve site security.

Learn more about how to apply to the Athenian Project, and check out Cloudflare Radar for real-time insights into Internet traffic, attack trends, and more.

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David Belson|@dbelson

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