Since 1993, hackers have traveled to Las Vegas from around the world to demonstrate their skills at DefCon’s annual convention, and every year new horrors of cyber-insecurity are revealed as they wield their craft. Last year, for example, an eleven-year-old boy changed the election results on a replica of the Florida state election website in under ten minutes.
This year was no exception. Participants revealed all sorts of clever attacks and pathetic vulnerabilities. One hack allowed a convention attendee to commandeer control of an iPhone with a non-Apple-issue charging cord, one that is identical to the Apple version. Another group figured out how to use a Netflix account to steal banking information. But for our purposes, let’s focus on election security because without it democracy is imperiled. And if you think about it, what are the odds of something like DefCon being permitted in the People’s Republic of China?
Speaking of China (or Russia or North Korea or Iran or…) will the 2020 election be hacked?
In a word: Yes.
In 2016 Russia targeted elections systems in all 50 states.
A CNN article about DefCon’s now annual Voting Village, described the overall problem: Many election officials and key players in the election business are not sufficiently worried to anticipate, recognize and meet the challenges ahead.
While many organizations welcome the hijinks of DefCon participants — including the Pentagon — the voting machine manufacturers don’t generally seem eager to have hackers of any stripe show them where they are vulnerable… and that should worry you.
DefCon participants are instructed to break things, and they do just that. This year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) toured DefCon’s Voting Village and he left with these words: “We need paper ballots, guys.”
Was the Senator right? It’s the easiest solution, but not the only one. Because elections machines are thus far preeminently breakable, we still need audited paper trails.
Paper trails are mission critical
After railing against previous findings of DefCon participants, Election Systems and Software (ES&S) CEO Tom Burt reversed his position in a Roll Call op-ed that called for paper records and mandatory machine testing in order to secure e-voting systems. It’s a welcome move as far as cybersecurity experts are concerned.
After a midterm election featuring irregularities in Georgia, North Carolina and other smaller hacks, and warnings from the likes of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, there has been no meaningful action nationwide when it comes to election security, while the specter of serious interference remains. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has steadfastly refused to allow even bi-partisan election security legislation to come to the floor for a vote, much less a debate, and for that reason he and the Republican party are blameworthy for placing politics above protecting our most cherished democratic right.
While the news is on overheated cycles covering every tweet, or sound bite, uttered by President Trump, critical issues like cybersecurity are not being addressed, and this matters — given recent DefCon news of election machines connected to the internet when they shouldn’t be, and the persistent threat of state-sponsored attacks on our democracy.
Think DARPA’s $10 million un-hackable election machine proves all is well? Not quite. Bugs during the set up of the DARPA wonder machine meant that DefCon’s participants didn’t have enough time to properly break the thing. In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, we have to assume it can be hacked.
It is well-established fact that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election in all 50 states, and Israel — an ally of the president — recently disclosed that the Russian government identified President Trump as the candidate most likely to benefit Russia, and used cyberbots to help him win. The fact that President Trump won the election on the strength of just 80,000 votes spread across three key swing states shows how important it is to address the issue. We’re not talking about a blunderbuss approach to hacking the election here. Plausible outcomes can be constructed. It’s been known to happen before.
Some experts think it may soon be too late to secure 2020 against the threat of state-sponsored hacks. I do not. But I think the time to delay to score political points has passed, and now is the time for action.