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.
This year, I bought two more machines to see if security had improved. To my dismay, I discovered that the newer model machines -- those that were used in the 2016 election -- are running Windows CE and have USB ports, along with other components, that make them even easier to exploit than the older ones. Our voting machines, billed as "next generation," and still in use today, are worse than they were before -- dispersed, disorganized, and susceptible to manipulation.
This is crazy (and dangerous). West Virginia is allowing people to vote via a smart-phone app. Even crazier, the app uses blockchain -- presumably because they have no idea what the security issues with voting actually are.
Of course the ESS ExpressVote voting computer will have lots of security vulnerabilities. It's a computer, and computers have lots of vulnerabilities. This particular vulnerability is particularly interesting because it's the result of a security mistake in the design process. Someone didn't think the security through, and the result is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail that doesn't provide the security it promises.
Now there's an even worse option than "DRE with paper trail"; I call it "press this button if it's OK for the machine to cheat" option. The country's biggest vendor of voting machines, ES&S, has a line of voting machines called ExpressVote. Some of these are optical scanners (which are fine), and others are "combination" machines, basically a ballot-marking device and an optical scanner all rolled into one.
This video shows a demonstration of ExpressVote all-in-one touchscreens purchased by Johnson County, Kansas. The voter brings a blank ballot to the machine, inserts it into a slot, chooses candidates. Then the machine prints those choices onto the blank ballot and spits it out for the voter to inspect. If the voter is satisfied, she inserts it back into the slot, where it is counted (and dropped into a sealed ballot box for possible recount or audit).
So far this seems OK, except that the process is a bit cumbersome and not completely intuitive (watch the video for yourself). It still suffers from the problems I describe above: voter may not carefully review all the choices, especially in down-ballot races; counties need to buy a lot more voting machines, because voters occupy the machine for a long time (in contrast to op-scan ballots, where they occupy a cheap cardboard privacy screen).
But here's the amazingly bad feature: "The version that we have has an option for both ways," [Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie] Metsker said. "We instruct the voters to print their ballots so that they can review their paper ballots, but they're not required to do so. If they want to press the button 'cast ballot,' it will cast the ballot, but if they do so they are doing so with full knowledge that they will not see their ballot card, it will instead be cast, scanned, tabulated and dropped in the secure ballot container at the backside of the machine." [TYT Investigates, article by Jennifer Cohn, September 6, 2018]
Now it's easy for a hacked machine to cheat undetectably! All the fraudulent vote-counting program has to do is wait until the voter chooses between "cast ballot without inspecting" and "inspect ballot before casting." If the latter, then don't cheat on this ballot. If the former, then change votes how it likes, and print those fraudulent votes on the paper ballot, knowing that the voter has already given up the right to look at it.
A voter-verifiable paper audit trail does not require every voter to verify the paper ballot. But it does require that every voter be able to verify the paper ballot. I am continuously amazed by how bad electronic voting machines are. Yes, they're computers. But they also seem to be designed by people who don't understand computer (or any) security.
Note: I am an advisor to Protect Democracy on its work related to election cybersecurity, and submitted a declaration in litigation it filed, challenging President Trump's now-defunct "election integrity" commission.
The survey of nearly forty Republican and Democratic campaign operatives, administered through November and December 2017, revealed that American political campaign staff -- primarily working at the state and congressional levels -- are not only unprepared for possible cyber attacks, but remain generally unconcerned about the threat. The survey sample was relatively small, but nevertheless the survey provides a first look at how campaign managers and staff are responding to the threat.
The overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not want to devote campaign resources to cybersecurity or to hire personnel to address cybersecurity issues. Even though campaign managers recognize there is a high probability that campaign and personal emails are at risk of being hacked, they are more concerned about fundraising and press coverage than they are about cybersecurity. Less than half of those surveyed said they had taken steps to make their data secure and most were unsure if they wanted to spend any money on this protection.
Security is never something we actually want. Security is something we need in order to avoid what we don't want. It's also more abstract, concerned with hypothetical future possibilities. Of course it's lower on the priorities list than fundraising and press coverage. They're more tangible, and they're more immediate.
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.
The Secure Elections Act strikes a careful balance between state and federal action to secure American voting systems. The measure authorizes appropriation of grants to the states to take important and time-sensitive actions, including:
Replacing insecure paperless voting systems with new equipment that will process a paper ballot;
Implementing post-election audits of paper ballots or records to verify electronic tallies;
Conducting "cyber hygiene" scans and "risk and vulnerability" assessments and supporting state efforts to remediate identified vulnerabilities.
The legislation would also create needed transparency and accountability in elections systems by establishing clear protocols for state and federal officials to communicate regarding security breaches and emerging threats.