Re­counts or no, US elec­tions are vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing

‘A small nudge might be de­ci­sive’

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Jill Stein’s bid to re­count votes in Penn­syl­va­nia was in trou­ble even be­fore a fed­eral judge shot it down Dec 12. That’s be­cause the Green Party can­di­date’s ef­fort stood lit­tle chance of de­tect­ing po­ten­tial fraud or er­ror in the vote - there was ba­si­cally noth­ing to re­count. Penn­syl­va­nia is one of 11 states where the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers use an­ti­quated ma­chines that store votes elec­tron­i­cally, with­out printed bal­lots or other pa­per-based back­ups that could be used to dou­ble-check the bal­lot­ing. There’s al­most no way to know if they’ve ac­cu­rately recorded in­di­vid­ual votes - or if any­one tam­pered with the count.

More than 80 per­cent of Penn­syl­va­ni­ans who voted Nov 8 cast their bal­lots on such ma­chines, ac­cord­ing to VotePA, a non­profit seek­ing their re­place­ment. VotePA’s Mary­beth Kuznik de­scribed the pro­posed re­count this way: “You go to the com­puter and you say, ‘OK, com­puter, you counted this a week-and-a-half ago. Were you right the first time?’” These pa­per­less dig­i­tal vot­ing ma­chines, used by roughly 1 in 5 US vot­ers last month, present one of the most glar­ing dan­gers to the se­cu­rity of the rick­ety, un­der­funded US elec­tion sys­tem. Like many elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines, they are vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing. But other ma­chines typ­i­cally leave a pa­per trail that could be man­u­ally checked.

The pa­per­less dig­i­tal ma­chines open the door to po­ten­tial elec­tion rig­ging that might not ever be de­tected. Their preva­lence also mag­ni­fies other risks in the elec­tion sys­tem, sim­ply be­cause er­ror or fraud is harder to catch when vote counts can’t be ver­i­fied. And like other vot­ing ma­chines adopted since the 2000 elec­tion, the pa­per­less sys­tems are near­ing the end of their use­ful life - yet there is no com­pre­hen­sive plan to re­place them. “If I were go­ing to hack this elec­tion, I would go for the pa­per­less ma­chines be­cause they are so hard to check,” said Bar­bara Si­mons, the co-au­thor of “Bro­ken Bal­lots,” a study of flawed US vot­ing tech­nol­ogy. Stein de­scribed her re­count ef­fort as a way to en­sure that the 2016 elec­tion wasn’t tainted by hack­ing or fraud. There’s no ev­i­dence of ei­ther so far - a fact fed­eral judge Paul Di­a­mond cited promi­nently in his de­ci­sion halt­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia re­count. Stein pur­sued sim­i­lar re­counts in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan, to lit­tle avail. Those states use more re­li­able pa­per-based vot­ing tech­nolo­gies. (The Elec­toral Col­lege cer­ti­fied Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial vic­tory last week). But a cadre of com­puter sci­en­tists from ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties backed Stein’s re­counts to un­der­score the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of US elec­tions.

Pa­per can’t be hacked

These re­searchers have suc­cess­fully hacked evot­ing ma­chines for more than a decade in tests com­mis­sioned by New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Ohio and other states. Stein and her wit­nesses said wor­ries about fraud were jus­ti­fied given US charges that Rus­sia med­dled in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Emails of top Democrats were hacked and leaked. Over the sum­mer, hack­ers also tried to breach the voter reg­is­tra­tion data­bases of Ari­zona and Illi­nois us­ing Rus­sia-based servers, US of­fi­cials said. Elec­tion net­works in at least 20 states were probed for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. “It’s a tar­get-rich en­vi­ron­ment,” said Rice Univer­sity com­puter sci­en­tist Dan Wal­lach.

Re­searchers would like to see the US move en­tirely to com­puter-scannable pa­per bal­lots, be­cause pa­per can’t be hacked. The US vot­ing sys­tem - a loosely reg­u­lated, lo­cally man­aged patch­work of more than 3,000 ju­ris­dic­tions over­seen by the states - em­ploys more than two dozen types of ma­chin­ery from 15 man­u­fac­tur­ers. Elec­tions of­fi­cials across the na­tion say they take great care to se­cure their ma­chines from tam­per­ing. They are locked away when not in use and sealed to pre­vent tam­per­ing. All of that makes na­tional elec­tions very dif­fi­cult to steal with­out get­ting caught. But dif­fi­cult is not im­pos­si­ble.

Wal­lach and his col­leagues be­lieve a crafty team of pros could strike sur­gi­cally, fo­cus­ing on se­lect coun­ties in a few bat­tle­ground states where “a small nudge might be de­ci­sive,” he said. Most vot­ing ma­chines in the US are at or near the end of their ex­pected life spans . Forty-three states use ma­chines more than a decade old. Most run on vin­tage op­er­at­ing sys­tems such as Win­dows 2000 that pre-date the iPhone and are no longer up­dated with se­cu­rity patches. On Nov 8, elec­tion of­fi­cials across the US han­dled nu­mer­ous com­plaints of ag­ing touch­screens los­ing cal­i­bra­tion and cast­ing votes for the wrong can­di­date. But while many ex­perts agree the US vot­ing sys­tem needs an up­grade, no one wants to pay to fix it.

Money flowed af­ter the 2000 Florida re­count de­ba­cle, when punch-card tech­nol­ogy was dis­cred­ited by hang­ing chads. Congress ap­pro­pri­ated $4 bil­lion for elec­tion up­grades; states raced to re­place punch cards and lever ma­chines with dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. But when that money ran out, so did the abil­ity of many states to ad­dress se­cu­rity con­cerns over­looked in their ini­tial rush. Four in 5 US elec­tion of­fi­cials polled by New York Univer­sity’s Bren­nan Cen­ter last year said they are des­per­ate to re­place equip­ment but lack the cash.

Vot­ers in poorer ar­eas suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately, the cen­ter found. Data col­lected in Vir­ginia, Ohio, Min­nesota and Colorado sug­gests the poor are more apt to en­counter fail­ing ma­chines. In Vir­ginia, wealth­ier coun­ties near Washington have up­graded tech­nol­ogy while lower-in­come coun­ties in the state’s south­west have not been able to af­ford it, said Edgardo Cortes, the state elec­tions com­mis­sioner. Ba­jak re­ported from Hous­ton. As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Tami Ab­dol­lah in Washington and Adrian Sainz in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, con­trib­uted to this re­port. —AP

MICHI­GAN: In this file photo, a chal­lenge is re­viewed on a bal­lot dur­ing a statewide pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­count in Water­ford Town­ship, Michi­gan.

MIL­WAU­KEE: In this file photo, work­ers be­gin a statewide pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­count in Mil­wau­kee. —AP Pho­tos

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