The so-called Crypto Wars have been going on for 25 years now. Basically, the FBI -- and some of their peer agencies in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere -- argue that the pervasive use of civilian encryption is hampering their ability to solve crimes and that they need the tech companies to make their systems susceptible to government eavesdropping. Sometimes their complaint is about communications systems, like voice or messaging apps. Sometimes it's about end-user devices. On the other side of this debate is pretty much all technologists working in computer security and cryptography, who argue that adding eavesdropping features fundamentally makes those systems less secure.
A recent entry in this debate is a proposal by Ian Levy and Crispin Robinson, both from the UK's GCHQ (the British signals-intelligence agency -- basically, its NSA). It's actually a positive contribution to the discourse around backdoors; most of the time government officials broadly demand that the tech companies figure out a way to meet their requirements, without providing any details. Levy and Robinson write:
In a world of encrypted services, a potential solution could be to go back a few decades. It's relatively easy for a service provider to silently add a law enforcement participant to a group chat or call. The service provider usually controls the identity system and so really decides who's who and which devices are involved -- they're usually involved in introducing the parties to a chat or call. You end up with everything still being end-to-end encrypted, but there's an extra 'end' on this particular communication. This sort of solution seems to be no more intrusive than the virtual crocodile clips that our democratically elected representatives and judiciary authorise today in traditional voice intercept solutions and certainly doesn't give any government power they shouldn't have.
On the surface, this isn't a big ask. It doesn't affect the encryption that protects the communications. It only affects the authentication that assures people of whom they are talking to. But it's no less dangerous a backdoor than any others that have been proposed: It exploits a security vulnerability rather than fixing it, and it opens all users of the system to exploitation of that same vulnerability by others.
In a blog post, cryptographer Matthew Green summarized the technical problems with this GCHQ proposal. Basically, making this backdoor work requires not only changing the cloud computers that oversee communications, but it also means changing the client program on everyone's phone and computer. And that change makes all of those systems less secure. Levy and Robinson make a big deal of the fact that their backdoor would only be targeted against specific individuals and their communications, but it's still a general backdoor that could be used against anybody.
The basic problem is that a backdoor is a technical capability -- a vulnerability -- that is available to anyone who knows about it and has access to it. Surrounding that vulnerability is a procedural system that tries to limit access to that capability. Computers, especially internet-connected computers, are inherently hackable, limiting the effectiveness of any procedures. The best defense is to not have the vulnerability at all.
That old physical eavesdropping system Levy and Robinson allude to also exploits a security vulnerability. Because telephone conversations were unencrypted as they passed through the physical wires of the phone system, the police were able to go to a switch in a phone company facility or a junction box on the street and manually attach alligator clips to a specific pair and listen in to what that phone transmitted and received. It was a vulnerability that anyone could exploit -- not just the police -- but was mitigated by the fact that the phone company was a monolithic monopoly, and physical access to the wires was either difficult (inside a phone company building) or obvious (on the street at a junction box).
The functional equivalent of physical eavesdropping for modern computer phone switches is a requirement of a 1994 U.S. law called CALEA -- and similar laws in other countries. By law, telephone companies must engineer phone switches that the government can eavesdrop, mirroring that old physical system with computers. It is not the same thing, though. It doesn't have those same physical limitations that make it more secure. It can be administered remotely. And it's implemented by a computer, which makes it vulnerable to the same hacking that every other computer is vulnerable to.
This isn't a theoretical problem; these systems have been subverted. The most public incident dates from 2004 in Greece. Vodafone Greece had phone switches with the eavesdropping feature mandated by CALEA. It was turned off by default in the Greek phone system, but the NSA managed to surreptitiously turn it on and use it to eavesdrop on the Greek prime minister and over 100 other high-ranking dignitaries.
There's nothing distinct about a phone switch that makes it any different from other modern encrypted voice or chat systems; any remotely administered backdoor system will be just as vulnerable. Imagine a chat program added this GCHQ backdoor. It would have to add a feature that added additional parties to a chat from somewhere in the system -- and not by the people at the endpoints. It would have to suppress any messages alerting users to another party being added to that chat. Since some chat programs, like iMessage and Signal, automatically send such messages, it would force those systems to lie to their users. Other systems would simply never implement the "tell me who is in this chat conversation" featurewhich amounts to the same thing.
And once that's in place, every government will try to hack it for its own purposes -- just as the NSA hacked Vodafone Greece. Again, this is nothing new. In 2010, China successfully hacked the back-door mechanism Google put in place to meet law-enforcement requests. In 2015, someone -- we don't know who -- hacked an NSA backdoor in a random-number generator used to create encryption keys, changing the parameters so they could also eavesdrop on the communications. There are certainly other stories that haven't been made public.
Simply adding the feature erodes public trust. If you were a dissident in a totalitarian country trying to communicate securely, would you want to use a voice or messaging system that is known to have this sort of backdoor? Who would you bet on, especially when the cost of losing the bet might be imprisonment or worse: the company that runs the system, or your country's government intelligence agency? If you were a senior government official, or the head of a large multinational corporation, or the security manager or a critical technician at a power plant, would you want to use this system?
Of course not.
Two years ago, there was a rumor of a WhatsApp backdoor. The details are complicated, and calling it a backdoor or a vulnerability islargelyinaccurate -- but the resultant confusion caused some people to abandon the encrypted messaging service.
Trust is fragile, and transparency is essential to trust. And while Levy and Robinson state that "any exceptional access solution should not fundamentally change the trust relationship between a service provider and its users," this proposal does exactly that. Communications companies could no longer be honest about what their systems were doing, and we would have no reason to trust them if they tried.
In the end, all of these exceptional access mechanisms, whether they exploit existing vulnerabilities that should be closed or force vendors to open new ones, reduce the security of the underlying system. They reduce our reliance on security technologies we know how to do well -- cryptography -- to computer security technologies we are much less good at. Even worse, they replace technical security measures with organizational procedures. Whether it's a database of master keys that could decrypt an iPhone or a communications switch that orchestrates who is securely chatting with whom, it is vulnerable to attack. And it will be attacked.
The foregoing discussion is a specific example of a broader discussion that we need to have, and it's about the attack/defense balance. Which should we prioritize? Should we design our systems to be open to attack, in which case they can be exploited by law enforcement -- and others? Or should we design our systems to be as secure as possible, which means they will be better protected from hackers, criminals, foreign governments and -- unavoidably -- law enforcement as well?
This discussion is larger than the FBI's ability to solve crimes or the NSA's ability to spy. We know that foreign intelligence services are targeting the communications of our elected officials, our power infrastructure, and our voting systems. Do we really want some foreign country penetrating our lawful-access backdoor in the same way the NSA penetrated Greece's?
I have long maintained that we need to adopt a defense-dominant strategy: We should prioritize our need for security over our need for surveillance. This is especially true in the new world of physically capable computers. Yes, it will mean that law enforcement will have a harder time eavesdropping on communications and unlocking computing devices. But law enforcement has other forensic techniques to collect surveillance data in our highly networked world. We'd be much better off increasing law enforcement's technical ability to investigate crimes in the modern digital world than we would be to weaken security for everyone. The ability to surreptitiously add ghost users to a conversation is a vulnerability, and it's one that we would be better served by closing than exploiting.
No one doubts that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will transform cybersecurity. Wejustdon'tknowhow, orwhen. While the literature generally focuses on the different uses of AI by attackers and defenders and the resultant arms race between the two I want to talk about software vulnerabilities.
All software contains bugs. The reason is basically economic: The market doesn't want to pay for quality software. With a few exceptions, such as the space shuttle, the market prioritizes fast and cheap over good. The result is that any large modern software package contains hundreds or thousands of bugs.
Some percentage of bugs are also vulnerabilities, and a percentage of those are exploitable vulnerabilities, meaning an attacker who knows about them can attack the underlying system in some way. And some percentage of those are discovered and used. This is why your computer and smartphone software is constantly being patched; software vendors are fixing bugs that are also vulnerabilities that have been discovered and are being used.
Everything would be better if software vendors found and fixed all bugs during the design and development process, but, as I said, the market doesn't reward that kind of delay and expense. AI, and machine learning in particular, has the potential to forever change this trade-off.
The problem of finding software vulnerabilities seems well-suited for ML systems. Going through code line by line is just the sort of tedious problem that computers excel at, if we can only teach them what a vulnerability looks like. There are challenges with that, of course, but there is alreadyahealthyamountofacademicliterature on the topic -- andresearchiscontinuing. There's every reason to expect ML systems to get better at this as time goes on, and some reason to expect them to eventually become very good at it.
Finding vulnerabilities can benefit both attackers and defenders, but it's not a fair fight. When an attacker's ML system finds a vulnerability in software, the attacker can use it to compromise systems. When a defender's ML system finds the same vulnerability, he or she can try to patch the system or program network defenses to watch for and block code that tries to exploit it.
But when the same system is in the hands of a software developer who uses it to find the vulnerability before the software is ever released, the developer fixes it so it can never be used in the first place. The ML system will probably be part of his or her software design tools and will automatically find and fix vulnerabilities while the code is still in development.
Fast-forward a decade or so into the future. We might say to each other, "Remember those years when software vulnerabilities were a thing, before ML vulnerability finders were built into every compiler and fixed them before the software was ever released? Wow, those were crazy years." Not only is this future possible, but I would bet on it.
Getting from here to there will be a dangerous ride, though. Those vulnerability finders will first be unleashed on existing software, giving attackers hundreds if not thousands of vulnerabilities to exploit in real-world attacks. Sure, defenders can use the same systems, but many of today's Internet of Things systems have no engineering teams to write patches and no ability to download and install patches. The result will be hundreds of vulnerabilities that attackers can find and use.
But if we look far enough into the horizon, we can see a future where software vulnerabilities are a thing of the past. Then we'll just have to worry about whatever new and more advanced attack techniques those AI systems come up with.
On November 4, 2016, the hacker "Guccifer 2.0," a front for Russia's military intelligence service, claimed in a blogpost that the Democrats were likely to use vulnerabilities to hack the presidential elections. On November 9, 2018, President Donald Trump started tweeting about the senatorial elections in Florida and Arizona. Without any evidence whatsoever, he said that Democrats were trying to steal the election through "FRAUD."
Cybersecurity expertswould say that posts like Guccifer 2.0's are intended to undermine public confidence in voting: a cyber-attack against the US democratic system. Yet Donald Trump's actions are doing far more damage to democracy. So far, his tweets on the topic have been retweeted over 270,000 times, eroding confidence far more effectively than any foreign influence campaign.
We need new ideas to explain how public statements on the Internet can weaken American democracy. Cybersecurity today is not only about computer systems. It's also about the ways attackers can use computer systems to manipulate and undermine public expectations about democracy. Not only do we need to rethink attacks against democracy; we also need to rethink the attackers as well.
This is one key reason why we wrote a new research paper which uses ideas from computer security to understand the relationship between democracy and information. These ideas help us understand attacks which destabilize confidence in democratic institutions or debate.
Our research implies that insider attacks from within American politics can be more pernicious than attacks from other countries. They are more sophisticated, employ tools that are harder to defend against, and lead to harsh political tradeoffs. The US can threaten charges or impose sanctions when Russian trolling agencies attack its democratic system. But what punishments can it use when the attacker is the US president?
People who think about cybersecurity build on ideas about confrontations between states during the Cold War. Intellectuals such as Thomas Schelling developed deterrence theory, which explained how the US and USSR could maneuver to limit each other's options without ever actually going to war. Deterrence theory, and related concepts about the relative ease of attack and defense, seemed to explain the tradeoffs that the US and rival states faced, as they started to use cyber techniques to probe and compromise each others' information networks.
However, these ideas fail to acknowledge one key differences between the Cold War and today. Nearly all states -- whether democratic or authoritarian -- are entangled on the Internet. This creates both new tensions and new opportunities. The US assumed that the internet would help spread American liberal values, and that this was a good and uncontroversial thing. Illiberal states like Russia and China feared that Internet freedom was a direct threat to their own systems of rule. Opponents of the regime might use social media and online communication to coordinate among themselves, and appeal to the broader public, perhaps toppling their governments, as happened in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.
This led illiberal states to develop new domestic defenses against open information flows. As scholars like Molly Roberts have shown, states like China and Russia discovered how they could "flood" internet discussion with online nonsense and distraction, making it impossible for their opponents to talk to each other, or even to distinguish between truth and falsehood. These flooding techniques stabilized authoritarian regimes, because they demoralized and confused the regime's opponents. Libertarians often argue that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Vladimir Putin discovered was that the best antidote to more speech was bad speech.
Russia saw the Arab Spring and efforts to encourage democracy in its neighborhood as direct threats, and began experimenting with counter-offensive techniques. When a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine collapsed due to popular protests, Russia tried to destabilize new, democratic elections by hacking the system through which the election results would be announced. The clear intention was to discredit the election results by announcing fake voting numbers that would throw public discussion into disarray.
This attack on public confidence in election results was thwarted at the last moment. Even so, it provided the model for a new kind of attack. Hackers don't have to secretly alter people's votes to affect elections. All they need to do is to damage public confidence that the votes were counted fairly. As researchers have argued, "simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side believing that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable."
These two kinds of attacks -- "flooding" attacks aimed at destabilizing public discourse, and "confidence" attacks aimed at undermining public belief in elections -- were weaponized against the US in 2016. Russian social media trolls, hired by the "Internet Research Agency," flooded online political discussions with rumors and counter-rumors in order to create confusion and political division. Peter Pomerantsev describes how in Russia, "one moment [Putin's media wizard] Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West." Similarly, Russian trolls tried to get Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-Black Lives Matter protesters to march at the same time and place, to create conflict and the appearance of chaos. Guccifer 2.0's blog post was surely intended to undermine confidence in the vote, preparing the ground for a wider destabilization campaign after Hillary Clinton won the election. Neither Putin nor anyone else anticipated that Trump would win, ushering in chaos on a vastly greater scale.
We do not know how successful these attacks were. A new book by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck suggests that Russian efforts had no measurable long-term consequences. Detailed research on the flow of news articles through social media by Yochai Benker, Robert Farris, and Hal Roberts agrees, showing that Fox News was far more influential in the spread of false news stories than any Russian effort.
However, global adversaries like the Russians aren't the only actors who can use flooding and confidence attacks. US actors can use just the same techniques. Indeed, they can arguably use them better, since they have a better understanding of US politics, more resources, and are far more difficult for the government to counter without raising First Amendment issues.
For example, when the Federal Communication Commission asked for comments on its proposal to get rid of "net neutrality," it was flooded by fake comments supporting the proposal. Nearly every real person who commented was in favor of net neutrality, but their arguments were drowned out by a flood of spurious comments purportedly made by identities stolen from porn sites, by people whose names and email addresses had been harvested without their permission, and, in some cases, from dead people. This was done not just to generate fake support for the FCC's controversial proposal. It was to devalue public comments in general, making the general public's support for net neutrality politically irrelevant. FCC decision making on issues like net neutrality used to be dominated by industry insiders, and many would like to go back to the old regime.
Trump's efforts to undermine confidence in the Florida and Arizona votes work on a much larger scale. There are clear short-term benefits to asserting fraud where no fraud exists. This may sway judges or other public officials to make concessions to the Republicans to preserve their legitimacy. Yet they also destabilize American democracy in the long term. If Republicans are convinced that Democrats win by cheating, they will feel that their own manipulation of the system (by purging voter rolls, making voting more difficult and so on) are legitimate, and very probably cheat even more flagrantly in the future. This will trash collective institutions and leave everyone worse off.
It is notable that some Arizonan Republicans -- including Martha McSally -- have so far stayed firm against pressure from the White House and the Republican National Committee to claim that cheating is happening. They presumably see more long term value from preserving existing institutions than undermining them. Very plausibly, Donald Trump has exactly the opposite incentives. By weakening public confidence in the vote today, he makes it easier to claim fraud and perhaps plunge American politics into chaos if he is defeated in 2020.
If experts who see Russian flooding and confidence measures as cyberattacks on US democracy are right, then these attacks are just as dangerous -- and perhaps more dangerous -- when they are used by domestic actors. The risk is that over time they will destabilize American democracy so that it comes closer to Russia's managed democracy -- where nothing is real any more, and ordinary people feel a mixture of paranoia, helplessness and disgust when they think about politics. Paradoxically, Russian interference is far too ineffectual to get us there -- but domestically mounted attacks by all-American political actors might.
To protect against that possibility, we need to start thinking more systematically about the relationship between democracy and information. Our paper provides one way to do this, highlighting the vulnerabilities of democracy against certain kinds of information attack. More generally, we need to build levees against flooding while shoring up public confidence in voting and other public information systems that are necessary to democracy.
The first may require radical changes in how we regulate social media companies. Modernization of government commenting platforms to make them robust against flooding is only a very minimal first step. Up until very recently, companies like Twitter have won market advantage from bot infestations -- even when it couldn't make a profit, it seemed that user numbers were growing. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg have begun to worry about democracy, but their worries will likely only go so far. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his business model depends on not understanding it. Sharp -- and legally enforceable -- limits on automated accounts are a first step. Radical redesign of networks and of trending indicators so that flooding attacks are less effective may be a second.
The second requires general standards for voting at the federal level, and a constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Technical experts nearly universally favor robust voting systems that would combine paper records with random post-election auditing, to prevent fraud and secure public confidence in voting. Other steps to ensure proper ballot design, and standardize vote counting and reporting will take more time and discussion -- yet the record of other countries show that they are not impossible.
The US is nearly unique among major democracies in the persistent flaws of its election machinery. Yet voting is not the only important form of democratic information. Apparent efforts to deliberately skew the US census against counting undocumented immigrants show the need for a more general audit of the political information systems that we need if democracy is to function properly.
It's easier to respond to Russian hackers through sanctions, counter-attacks and the like than to domestic political attacks that undermine US democracy. To preserve the basic political freedoms of democracy requires recognizing that these freedoms are sometimes going to be abused by politicians such as Donald Trump. The best that we can do is to minimize the possibilities of abuse up to the point where they encroach on basic freedoms and harden the general institutions that secure democratic information against attacks intended to undermine them.
This essay was co-authored with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared on Motherboard, with a terrible headline that I was unable to get changed.
That's the starting place of our new paper: "Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy." In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States.
The answer revolves around the different ways autocracies and democracies work as information systems. We start by differentiating between two types of knowledge that societies use in their political systems. The first is common political knowledge, which is the body of information that people in a society broadly agree on. People agree on who the rulers are and what their claim to legitimacy is. People agree broadly on how their government works, even if they don't like it. In a democracy, people agree about how elections work: how districts are created and defined, how candidates are chosen, and that their votes count -- even if only roughly and imperfectly.
We contrast this with a very different form of knowledge that we call contested political knowledge, which is, broadly, things that people in society disagree about. Examples are easy to bring to mind: how much of a role the government should play in the economy, what the tax rules should be, what sorts of regulations are beneficial and what sorts are harmful, and so on.
This seems basic, but it gets interesting when we contrast both of these forms of knowledge across autocracies and democracies. These two forms of government have incompatible needs for common and contested political knowledge.
For example, democracies draw upon the disagreements within their population to solve problems. Different political groups have different ideas of how to govern, and those groups vie for political influence by persuading voters. There is also long-term uncertainty about who will be in charge and able to set policy goals. Ideally, this is the mechanism through which a polity can harness the diversity of perspectives of its members to better solve complex policy problems. When no-one knows who is going to be in charge after the next election, different parties and candidates will vie to persuade voters of the benefits of different policy proposals.
But in order for this to work, there needs to be common knowledge both of how government functions and how political leaders are chosen. There also needs to be common knowledge of who the political actors are, what they and their parties stand for, and how they clash with each other. Furthermore, this knowledge is decentralized across a wide variety of actors -- an essential element, since ordinary citizens play a significant role in political decision making.
Contrast this with an autocracy. There, common political knowledge about who is in charge over the long term and what their policy goals are is a basic condition of stability. Autocracies do not require common political knowledge about the efficacy and fairness of elections, and strive to maintain a monopoly on other forms of common political knowledge. They actively suppress common political knowledge about potential groupings within their society, their levels of popular support, and how they might form coalitions with each other. On the other hand, they benefit from contested political knowledge about nongovernmental groups and actors in society. If no one really knows which other political parties might form, what they might stand for, and what support they might get, that itself is a significant barrier to those parties ever forming.
This difference has important consequences for security. Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to information attacks that challenge their monopoly on common political knowledge. They are vulnerable to outside information that demonstrates that the government is manipulating common political knowledge to their own benefit. And they are vulnerable to attacks that turn contested political knowledge -- uncertainty about potential adversaries of the ruling regime, their popular levels of support and their ability to form coalitions -- into common political knowledge. As such, they are vulnerable to tools that allow people to communicate and organize more easily, as well as tools that provide citizens with outside information and perspectives.
For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn't pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.
Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia's aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsev describe in today's Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.
This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supporting common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.
In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.
This framework not only helps us understand how different political systems are vulnerable and how they can be attacked, but also how to bolster security in democracies. First, we need to better defend the common political knowledge that democracies need to function. That is, we need to bolster public confidence in the institutions and systems that maintain a democracy. Second, we need to make it harder for outside political groups to cooperate with inside political groups and organize disinformation attacks, through measures like transparency in political funding and spending. And finally, we need to treat attacks on common political knowledge by insiders as being just as threatening as the same attacks by foreigners.
Due to ever-evolving technological advances, manufacturers are connecting consumer goods -- from toys to light bulbs to major appliances -- to the Internet at breakneck speeds. This is the Internet of Things, and it's a security nightmare.
The Internet of Things fuses products with communications technology to make daily life more effortless. Think Amazon's Alexa, which not only answers questions and plays music but allows you to control your home's lights and thermostat. Or the current generation of implanted pacemakers, which can both receive commands and send information to doctors over the Internet.
But like nearly all innovation, there are risks involved. And for products born out of the Internet of Things, this means the risk of having personal information stolen or devices being overtaken and controlled remotely. For devices that affect the world in a direct physical manner -- cars, pacemakers, thermostats -- the risks include loss of life and property.
By developing more advanced security features and building them into these products, hacks can be avoided. The problem is that there is no monetary incentive for companies to invest in the cybersecurity measures needed to keep their products secure. Consumers will buy products without proper security features, unaware that their information is vulnerable. And current liability laws make it hard to hold companies accountable for shoddy software security.
It falls upon lawmakers to create laws that protect consumers. While the US government is largely absent in this area of consumer protection, the state of California has recently steppedin and started regulating the Internet of Things, or "IoT" devices sold in the state -- and the effects will soon be felt worldwide.
California's new SB 327 law, which will take effect in January 2020, requires all "connected devices" to have a "reasonable security feature." The good news is that the term "connected devices" is broadly defined to include just about everything connected to the Internet. The not-so-good news is that "reasonable security" remains defined such that companies trying to avoid compliance can argue that the law is unenforceable.
The legislation requires that security features must be able to protect the device and the information on it from a variety of threats and be appropriate to both the nature of the device and the information it collects. California's attorney general will interpret the law and define the specifics, which will surely be the subject of much lobbying by tech companies.
There's just one specific in the law that's not subject to the attorney general's interpretation: default passwords are not allowed. This is a good thing; they are a terrible security practice. But it's just one of dozens of awful "security" measures commonly found in IoT devices.
This law is not a panacea. But we have to start somewhere, and it is a start.
Though the legislation covers only the state of California, its effects will reach much further. All of us -- in the United States or elsewhere -- are likely to benefit because of the way software is written and sold.
Automobile manufacturers sell their cars worldwide, but they are customized for local markets. The car you buy in the United States is different from the same model sold in Mexico, because the local environmental laws are not the same and manufacturers optimize engines based on where the product will be sold. The economics of building and selling automobiles easily allows for this differentiation.
But software is different. Once California forces minimum security standards on IoT devices, manufacturers will have to rewrite their software to comply. At that point, it won't make sense to have two versions: one for California and another for everywhere else. It's much easier to maintain the single, more secure version and sell it everywhere.
The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which implemented the annoying warnings and agreements that pop up on websites, is another example of a law that extends well beyond physical borders. You might have noticed an increase in websites that force you to acknowledge you've read and agreed to the website's privacy policies. This is because it is tricky to differentiate between users who are subject to the protections of the GDPR -- people physically in the European Union, and EU citizens wherever they are -- and those who are not. It's easier to extend the protection to everyone.
Once this kind of sorting is possible, companies will, in all likelihood, return to their profitable surveillance capitalism practices on those who are still fair game. Surveillance is still the primary business model of the Internet, and companies want to spy on us and our activities as much as they can so they can sell us more things and monetize what they know about our behavior.
Insecurity is profitable only if you can get away with it worldwide. Once you can't, you might as well make a virtue out of necessity. So everyone will benefit from the California regulation, as they would from similar security regulations enacted in any market around the world large enough to matter, just like everyone will benefit from the portion of GDPR compliance that involves data security.
Most importantly, laws like these spur innovations in cybersecurity. Right now, we have a market failure. Because the courts have traditionally not held software manufacturers liable for vulnerabilities, and because consumers don't have the expertise to differentiate between a secure product and an insecure one, manufacturers have prioritized low prices, getting devices out on the market quickly and additional features over security.
But once a government steps in and imposes more stringent security regulations, companies have an incentive to meet those standards as quickly, cheaply, and effectively as possible. This means more security innovation, because now there's a market for new ideas and new products. We've seen this pattern again and again in safety and security engineering, and we'll see it with the Internet of Things as well.
IoT devices are more dangerous than our traditional computers because they sense the world around us, and affect that world in a direct physical manner. Increasing the cybersecurity of these devices is paramount, and it's heartening to see both individual states and the European Union step in where the US federal government is abdicating responsibility. But we need more, and soon.
Earlier this week, the New York Timesreported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump's personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have beentalkingabout the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump's cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at -- but acquiesced to -- the security rules prohibiting him from using a "regular" cell phone throughout his presidency.
Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump's cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And -- most personal of all -- what about my cell phone calls?
There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet's major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing "target selectors": phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany -- among them Chancellor Angela Merkel -- France, Japan, andothercountries.
Other countries don't have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don't know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman's phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country's phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.
Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don't think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.
The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians -- presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa -- 45 countries in all.
These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200K for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.
Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone -- Pixel -- that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)
Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China's recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.
Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it's safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I'd say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.
It's safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials -- especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).
As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It's easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO's phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We've seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You're at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn't want to bother with security, you're vulnerable.
This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers -- including the FBI -- can't access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone's phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.
Quantum computing is a new way of computing -- one that could allow humankind to perform computations that are simply impossible using today's computing technologies. It allows for very fast searching, something that would break some of the encryption algorithms we use today. And it allows us to easily factor large numbers, something that would break the RSA cryptosystem for any key length.
This is why cryptographers are hard at work designing and analyzing "quantum-resistant" public-key algorithms. Currently, quantum computing is too nascent for cryptographers to be sure of what is secure and what isn't. But even assuming aliens have developed the technology to its full potential, quantum computing doesn't spell the end of the world for cryptography. Symmetric cryptography is easy to make quantum-resistant, and we're working on quantum-resistant public-key algorithms. If public-key cryptography ends up being a temporary anomaly based on our mathematical knowledge and computational ability, we'll still survive. And if some inconceivable alien technology can break all of cryptography, we still can have secrecy based on information theory -- albeit with significant loss of capability.
At its core, cryptography relies on the mathematical quirk that some things are easier to do than to undo. Just as it's easier to smash a plate than to glue all the pieces back together, it's much easier to multiply two prime numbers together to obtain one large number than it is to factor that large number back into two prime numbers. Asymmetries of this kind -- one-way functions and trap-door one-way functions -- underlie all of cryptography.
To encrypt a message, we combine it with a key to form ciphertext. Without the key, reversing the process is more difficult. Not just a little more difficult, but astronomically more difficult. Modern encryption algorithms are so fast that they can secure your entire hard drive without any noticeable slowdown, but that encryption can't be broken before the heat death of the universe.
With symmetric cryptography -- the kind used to encrypt messages, files, and drives -- that imbalance is exponential, and is amplified as the keys get larger. Adding one bit of key increases the complexity of encryption by less than a percent (I'm hand-waving here) but doubles the cost to break. So a 256-bit key might seem only twice as complex as a 128-bit key, but (with our current knowledge of mathematics) it's 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 times harder to break.
Public-key encryption (used primarily for key exchange) and digital signatures are more complicated. Because they rely on hard mathematical problems like factoring, there are more potential tricks to reverse them. So you'll see key lengths of 2,048 bits for RSA, and 384 bits for algorithms based on elliptic curves. Here again, though, the costs to reverse the algorithms with these key lengths are beyond the current reach of humankind.
This one-wayness is based on our mathematical knowledge. When you hear about a cryptographer "breaking" an algorithm, what happened is that they've found a new trick that makes reversing easier. Cryptographers discover new tricks all the time, which is why we tend to use key lengths that are longer than strictly necessary. This is true for both symmetric and public-key algorithms; we're trying to future-proof them.
Quantum computers promise to upend a lot of this. Because of the way they work, they excel at the sorts of computations necessary to reverse these one-way functions. For symmetric cryptography, this isn't too bad. Grover's algorithm shows that a quantum computer speeds up these attacks to effectively halve the key length. This would mean that a 256-bit key is as strong against a quantum computer as a 128-bit key is against a conventional computer; both are secure for the foreseeable future.
For public-key cryptography, the results are more dire. Shor's algorithm can easily break all of the commonly used public-key algorithms based on both factoring and the discrete logarithm problem. Doubling the key length increases the difficulty to break by a factor of eight. That's not enough of a sustainable edge.
There are a lot of caveats to those two paragraphs, the biggest of which is that quantum computers capable of doing anything like this don't currently exist, and no one knows when -- or even if - we'll be able to build one. We also don't know what sorts of practical difficulties will arise when we try to implement Grover's or Shor's algorithms for anything but toy key sizes. (Error correction on a quantum computer could easily be an unsurmountable problem.) On the other hand, we don't know what other techniques will be discovered once people start working with actual quantum computers. My bet is that we will overcome the engineering challenges, and that there will be many advances and new techniquesbut they're going to take time to discover and invent. Just as it took decades for us to get supercomputers in our pockets, it will take decades to work through all the engineering problems necessary to build large-enough quantum computers.
In the short term, cryptographers are putting considerable effort into designing and analyzing quantum-resistant algorithms, and those are likely to remain secure for decades. This is a necessarily slow process, as both good cryptanalysis transitioning standards take time. Luckily, we have time. Practical quantum computing seems to always remain "ten years in the future," which means no one has any idea.
After that, though, there is always the possibility that those algorithms will fall to aliens with better quantum techniques. I am less worried about symmetric cryptography, where Grover's algorithm is basically an upper limit on quantum improvements, than I am about public-key algorithms based on number theory, which feel more fragile. It's possible that quantum computers will someday break all of them, even those that today are quantum resistant.
If that happens, we will face a world without strong public-key cryptography. That would be a huge blow to security and would break a lot of stuff we currently do, but we could adapt. In the 1980s, Kerberos was an all-symmetric authentication and encryption system. More recently, the GSM cellular standard does both authentication and key distribution -- at scale -- with only symmetric cryptography. Yes, those systems have centralized points of trust and failure, but it's possible to design other systems that use both secret splitting and secret sharing to minimize that risk. (Imagine that a pair of communicants get a piece of their session key from each of five different key servers.) The ubiquity of communications also makes things easier today. We can use out-of-band protocols where, for example, your phone helps you create a key for your computer. We can use in-person registration for added security, maybe at the store where you buy your smartphone or initialize your Internet service. Advances in hardware may also help to secure keys in this world. I'm not trying to design anything here, only to point out that there are many design possibilities. We know that cryptography is all about trust, and we have a lot more techniques to manage trust than we did in the early years of the Internet. Some important properties like forward secrecy will be blunted and far more complex, but as long as symmetric cryptography still works, we'll still have security.
It's a weird future. Maybe the whole idea of number theory-based encryption, which is what our modern public-key systems are, is a temporary detour based on our incomplete model of computing. Now that our model has expanded to include quantum computing, we might end up back to where we were in the late 1970s and early 1980s: symmetric cryptography, code-based cryptography, Merkle hash signatures. That would be both amusing and ironic.
Yes, I know that quantum key distribution is a potential replacement for public-key cryptography. But come on -- does anyone expect a system that requires specialized communications hardware and cables to be useful for anything but niche applications? The future is mobile, always-on, embedded computing devices. Any security for those will necessarily be software only.
There's one more future scenario to consider, one that doesn't require a quantum computer. While there are several mathematical theories that underpin the one-wayness we use in cryptography, proving the validity of those theories is in fact one of the great open problems in computer science. Just as it is possible for a smart cryptographer to find a new trick that makes it easier to break a particular algorithm, we might imagine aliens with sufficient mathematical theory to break all encryption algorithms. To us, today, this is ridiculous. Public- key cryptography is all number theory, and potentially vulnerable to more mathematically inclined aliens. Symmetric cryptography is so much nonlinear muddle, so easy to make more complex, and so easy to increase key length, that this future is unimaginable. Consider an AES variant with a 512-bit block and key size, and 128 rounds. Unless mathematics is fundamentally different than our current understanding, that'll be secure until computers are made of something other than matter and occupy something other than space.
But if the unimaginable happens, that would leave us with cryptography based solely on information theory: one-time pads and their variants. This would be a huge blow to security. One-time pads might be theoretically secure, but in practical terms they are unusable for anything other than specialized niche applications. Today, only crackpots try to build general-use systems based on one-time pads -- and cryptographers laugh at them, because they replace algorithm design problems (easy) with key management and physical security problems (much, much harder). In our alien-ridden science-fiction future, we might have nothing else.
Against these godlike aliens, cryptography will be the only technology we can be sure of. Our nukes might refuse to detonate and our fighter jets might fall out of the sky, but we will still be able to communicate securely using one-time pads. There's an optimism in that.
On May 25, the FBI asked us all to reboot our routers. The story behind this request is one of sophisticated malware and unsophisticated home-network security, and it's a harbinger of the sorts of pervasive threats from nation-states, criminals and hackers that we should expect in coming years.
VPNFilter is a sophisticatedpiece of malware that infects mostly older home and small-office routers made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, QNAP and TP-Link. (For a list of specific models, click here.) It's an impressive piece of work. It can eavesdrop on traffic passing through the router specifically, log-in credentials and SCADA traffic, which is a networking protocol that controls power plants, chemical plants and industrial systems attack other targets on the Internet and destructively "kill" its infected device. It is one of a very few pieces of malware that can survive a reboot, even though that's what the FBI has requested. It has a number of other capabilities, and it can be remotely updated to provide still others. More than 500,000 routers in at least 54 countries have been infected since 2016.
Because of the malware's sophistication, VPNFilter is believed to be the work of a government. The FBI suggested the Russian government was involved for two circumstantial reasons. One, a piece of the code is identical to one found in another piece of malware, called BlackEnergy, that was used in the December 2015 attack against Ukraine's power grid. Russia is believed to be behind that attack. And two, the majority of those 500,000 infections are in Ukraine and controlled by a separate command-and-control server. There might also be classified evidence, as an FBI affidavit in this matter identifies the group behind VPNFilter as Sofacy, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. That's the group behind a long list of attacks, including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Two companies, Cisco and Symantec, seem to have been working with the FBI during the past two years to track this malware as it infected ever more routers. The infection mechanism isn't known, but we believe it targets known vulnerabilities in these older routers. Pretty much no one patches their routers, so the vulnerabilities have remained, even if they were fixed in new models from the same manufacturers.
On May 30, the FBI seized control of toknowall.com, a critical VPNFilter command-and-control server. This is called "sinkholing," and serves to disrupt a critical part of this system. When infected routers contact toknowall.com, they will no longer be contacting a server owned by the malware's creators; instead, they'll be contacting a server owned by the FBI. This doesn't entirely neutralize the malware, though. It will stay on the infected routers through reboot, and the underlying vulnerabilities remain, making the routers susceptible to reinfection with a variant controlled by a different server.
If you want to make sure your router is no longer infected, you need to do more than reboot it, the FBI's warning notwithstanding. You need to reset the router to its factory settings. That means you need to reconfigure it for your network, which can be a pain if you're not sophisticated in these matters. If you want to make sure your router cannot be reinfected, you need to update the firmware with any security patches from the manufacturer. This is harder to do and may strain your technical capabilities, though it's ridiculous that routers don't automatically download and install firmware updates on their own. Some of these models probably do not even have security patches available. Honestly, the best thing to do if you have one of the vulnerable models is to throw it away and get a new one. (Your ISP will probably send you a new one free if you claim that it's not working properly. And you should have a new one, because if your current one is on the list, it's at least 10 years old.)
So if it won't clear out the malware, why is the FBI askingus to reboot our routers? It's mostly just to get a sense of how bad the problem is. The FBI now controls toknowall.com. When an infected router gets rebooted, it connects to that server to get fully reinfected, and when it does, the FBI will know. Rebooting will give it a better idea of how many devices out there are infected.
Internet of Things malware isn't new. The 2016 Mirai botnet, for example, created by a lone hacker and not a government, targeted vulnerabilities in Internet-connected digital video recorders and webcams. Other malware has targeted Internet-connected thermostats. Lots of malware targets home routers. These devices are particularly vulnerable because they are often designed by ad hoc teams without a lot of security expertise, stay around in networks far longer than our computers and phones, and have no easy way to patch them.
It wouldn't be surprising if the Russians targeted routers to build a network of infected computers for follow-on cyber operations. I'm sure many governments are doing the same. As long as we allow these insecure devices on the Internet and short of security regulations, there's no way to stop them we're going to be vulnerable to this kind of malware.
And next time, the command-and-control server won't be so easy to disrupt.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon stopped selling phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei on military bases because they might be used to spy on their users.
It's a legitimate fear, and perhaps a prudent action. But it's just one instance of the much larger issue of securing our supply chains.
All of our computerized systems are deeply international, and we have no choice but to trust the companies and governments that touch those systems. And while we can ban a few specific products, services or companies, no country can isolate itself from potential foreign interference.
In this specific case, the Pentagon is concerned that the Chinese government demanded that ZTE and Huawei add "backdoors" to their phones that could be surreptitiously turned on by government spies or cause them to fail during some future political conflict. This tampering is possible because the software in these phones is incredibly complex. It's relatively easy for programmers to hide these capabilities, and correspondingly difficult to detect them.
This isn't the first time the United States has taken action against foreign software suspected to contain hidden features that can be used against us. Last December, President Trump signed into law a bill banning software from the Russian company Kaspersky from being used within the US government. In 2012, the focus was on Chinese-made Internet routers. Then, the House Intelligence Committee concluded: "Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems."
Nor is the United States the only country worried about these threats. In 2014, China reportedly banned antivirus products from both Kaspersky and the US company Symantec, based on similar fears. In 2017, the Indian government identified 42 smartphone apps that China subverted. Back in 1997, the Israeli company Check Point was dogged by rumors that its government added backdoors into its products; other of that country's tech companies have been suspected of the same thing. Even al-Qaeda was concerned; ten years ago, a sympathizer released the encryption software Mujahedeen Secrets, claimed to be free of Western influence and backdoors. If a country doesn't trust another country, then it can't trust that country's computer products.
But this trust isn't limited to the country where the company is based. We have to trust the country where the software is written -- and the countries where all the components are manufactured. In 2016, researchers discovered that many different models of cheap Android phones were sending information back to China. The phones might be American-made, but the software was from China. In 2016, researchers demonstrated an even more devious technique, where a backdoor could be added at the computer chip level in the factory that made the chips without the knowledge of, and undetectable by, the engineers who designed the chips in the first place. Pretty much every US technology company manufactures its hardware in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Taiwan.
We also have to trust the programmers. Today's large software programs are written by teams of hundreds of programmers scattered around the globe. Backdoors, put there by we-have-no-idea-who, have been discovered in Juniper firewalls and D-Link routers, both of which are US companies. In 2003, someone almost slipped a very clever backdoor into Linux. Think of how many countries' citizens are writing software for Apple or Microsoft or Google.
We can go even farther down the rabbit hole. We have to trust the distribution systems for our hardware and software. Documents disclosed by Edward Snowden showed the National Security Agency installing backdoors into Cisco routers being shipped to the Syrian telephone company. There are fake apps in the Google Play store that eavesdrop on you. Russian hackers subverted the update mechanism of a popular brand of Ukrainian accounting software to spread the NotPetya malware.
I could go on. Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn't an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can't trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government. And just as Russia is penetrating the US power grid so they have that capability in the event of hostilities, many countries are almost certainly doing the same thing at the consumer level.
We don't know whether the risk of Huawei and ZTE equipment is great enough to warrant the ban. We don't know what classified intelligence the United States has, and what it implies. But we do know that this is just a minor fix for a much larger problem. It's doubtful that this ban will have any real effect. Members of the military, and everyone else, can still buy the phones. They just can't buy them on US military bases. And while the US might block the occasional merger or acquisition, or ban the occasional hardware or software product, we're largely ignoring that larger issue. Solving it borders on somewhere between incredibly expensive and realistically impossible.
Perhaps someday, global norms and international treaties will render this sort of device-level tampering off-limits. But until then, all we can do is hope that this particular arms race doesn't get too far out of control.
Elections serve two purposes. The first, and obvious, purpose is to accurately choose the winner. But the second is equally important: to convince the loser. To the extent that an election system is not transparently and auditably accurate, it fails in that second purpose. Our election systems are failing, and we need to fix them.
Today, we conduct our elections on computers. Our registration lists are in computer databases. We vote on computerized voting machines. And our tabulation and reporting is done on computers. We do this for a lot of good reasons, but a side effect is that elections now have all the insecurities inherent in computers. The only way to reliably protect elections from both malice and accident is to use something that is not hackable or unreliable at scale; the best way to do that is to back up as much of the system as possible with paper.
Recently, there have been two graphic demonstrations of how bad our computerized voting system is. In 2007, the states of California and Ohio conducted audits of their electronic voting machines. Expert review teams found exploitable vulnerabilities in almost every component they examined. The researchers were able to undetectably alter vote tallies, erase audit logs, and load malware on to the systems. Some of their attacks could be implemented by a single individual with no greater access than a normal poll worker; others could be done remotely.
Last year, the Defcon hackers' conference sponsored a Voting Village. Organizers collected 25 pieces of voting equipment, including voting machines and electronic poll books. By the end of the weekend, conference attendees had found ways to compromise every piece of test equipment: to load malicious software, compromise vote tallies and audit logs, or cause equipment to fail.
It's important to understand that these were not well-funded nation-state attackers. These were not even academics who had been studying the problem for weeks. These were bored hackers, with no experience with voting machines, playing around between parties one weekend.
It shouldn't be any surprise that voting equipment, including voting machines, voter registration databases, and vote tabulation systems, are that hackable. They're computers -- often ancient computers running operating systems no longer supported by the manufacturers -- and they don't have any magical security technology that the rest of the industry isn't privy to. If anything, they're less secure than the computers we generally use, because their manufacturers hide any flaws behind the proprietary nature of their equipment.
We're not just worried about altering the vote. Sometimes causing widespread failures, or even just sowing mistrust in the system, is enough. And an election whose results are not trusted or believed is a failed election.
Voting systems have another requirement that makes security even harder to achieve: the requirement for a secret ballot. Because we have to securely separate the election-roll system that determines who can vote from the system that collects and tabulates the votes, we can't use the security systems available to banking and other high-value applications.
We can securely bank online, but can't securely vote online. If we could do away with anonymity -- if everyone could check that their vote was counted correctly -- then it would be easy to secure the vote. But that would lead to other problems. Before the US had the secret ballot, voter coercion and vote-buying were widespread.
We can't, so we need to accept that our voting systems are insecure. We need an election system that is resilient to the threats. And for many parts of the system, that means paper.
Let's start with the voter rolls. We know they've already been targeted. In 2016, someone changed the party affiliation of hundreds of voters before the Republican primary. That's just one possibility. A well-executed attack that deletes, for example, one in five voters at random -- or changes their addresses -- would cause chaos on election day.
Yes, we need to shore up the security of these systems. We need better computer, network, and database security for the various state voter organizations. We also need to better secure the voterregistration websites, with better design and better internet security. We need better security for the companies that build and sell all this equipment.
Multiple, unchangeable backups are essential. A record of every addition, deletion, and change needs to be stored on a separate system, on write-only media like a DVD. Copies of that DVD, or -- even better -- a paper printout of the voter rolls, should be available at every polling place on election day. We need to be ready for anything.
Next, the voting machines themselves. Security researchers agree that the gold standard is a voter-verified paper ballot. The easiest (and cheapest) way to achieve this is through optical-scan voting. Voters mark paper ballots by hand; they are fed into a machine and counted automatically. That paper ballot is saved, and serves as a final true record in a recount in case of problems. Touch-screen machines that print a paper ballot to drop in a ballot box can also work for voters with disabilities, as long as the ballot can be easily read and verified by the voter.
Finally, the tabulation and reporting systems. Here again we need more security in the process, but we must always use those paper ballots as checks on the computers. A manual, post-election, risk-limiting audit varies the number of ballots examined according to the margin of victory. Conducting this audit after every election, before the results are certified, gives us confidence that the election outcome is correct, even if the voting machines and tabulation computers have been tampered with. Additionally, we need better coordination and communications when incidents occur.
It's vital to agree on these procedures and policies before an election. Before the fact, when anyone can win and no one knows whose votes might be changed, it's easy to agree on strong security. But after the vote, someone is the presumptive winner -- and then everything changes. Half of the country wants the result to stand, and half wants it reversed. At that point, it's too late to agree on anything.
The politicians running in the election shouldn't have to argue their challenges in court. Getting elections right is in the interest of all citizens. Many countries have independent election commissions that are charged with conducting elections and ensuring their security. We don't do that in the US.
Instead, we have representatives from each of our two parties in the room, keeping an eye on each other. That provided acceptable security against 20th-century threats, but is totally inadequate to secure our elections in the 21st century. And the belief that the diversity of voting systems in the US provides a measure of security is a dangerous myth, because a few districts can be decisive and there are so few voting-machine vendors.
We candobetter. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security declared elections to be critical infrastructure, allowing the department to focus on securing them. On 23 March, Congress allocated $380m to states to upgrade election security.
These are good starts, but don't go nearly far enough. The constitution delegates elections to the states but allows Congress to "make or alter such Regulations". In 1845, Congress set a nationwide election day. Today, we need it to set uniform and strict election standards.