Mitigating the Hacker Threat

Jay-beardedAug 31, 2016 — RALEIGH — Unless you’ve been off the grid for a while, you’re probably among the millions of Americans, alarmed over recent headlines about possible Russian hacking of American election systems and the Drudgereport headlines, suggesting Homeland Security may take over the electoral system. While both of these stories deserve our concern, there are prudent actions election officials may take that will lessen the risk of a stolen election.

But before I get to those precautions, let’s wargame some of the darker effects that hackers could have on our elections.

First, some good news…

Until we become so stupid that we adopt some sort of online electoral voting, nobody will be able to change the outcome of a statewide election just by tweaking a lines in a computer program. This is due to analog systems, like paper ballots and back-up tapes on most electronic voting equipment.

Now, rather than speculate on what hackers “can” do, we can predict the future by examining what they may have already done.

Take New York for example. In April of this year, around 200 voters filed suit, claiming their party affiliation had been changed without their knowledge. The impact of this on a primary is serious, in that people were locked out of voting on their party’s ballot; but such affiliations are irrelevant in a general election, because everybody gets the same ballot.

So a serious hacker threat in November would probably involve the complete removal of voters from the database. Imagine the chaos and frustration on Election Day if tens of thousands of Voters show up to vote and are told they are not registered. This would cause mayhem or even rioting in some cases, which is just what certain hostile entities…both foreign and domestic…would love to see in America.

Fortunately, there are solutions on both a personal and the institutional level.

The best individual precaution is to bring proof of registration with you to the polls. At best, that would be the actual voter registration card that your election board sent you many moons ago. Most people just throw it in a drawer, but now would be a good time to dig it up and stick it in your wallet. Then, if you run into trouble at the polls, pull that baby out and let the chips fall.

Another prudent back up plan would be to take screen shots of your registration, print it and carry it with you when voting. While this document won’t “prove” you’re still registered, it helps make your case.

And the final safety step is to vote as soon as possible and try to get a paper ballot. Those steps give you a pretty good chance of avoiding disenfranchisement.

Meanwhile, back at the Board of Elections…

Of course, none of those back-up steps means anything unless election officials also establish a contingency plan; so here are three relatively modest actions they should take:

First, immediately start backing up our voter rolls on a daily basis and, oh by the way, save them! This is a no-brainer best practice among election officials who actually care about fraud, but it was not something we observed in North Carolina’s pre-McCrory years.

We hope Director Kim Strach has made this a priority, but never asked about it after their well-paid data guy told us they “didn’t have the resources” to save something like 3.5 GB of data each week. To which, our data guy offered to buy them a 3 TB hard drive once a year. Hopefully, his boss got the message and invested the $200 annual cost it would require…but I digress. Having the backup files is only the first step.

Second, a great way to avoid chaos on Election Day is to create a parallel database on an “air-gapped” system. This computer is never connected to the internet unless something goes horribly wrong.

Third, election officials should develop a standardized procedure for all 100 counties on handling voters who suddenly learn they’re no longer registered. To avoid enterprise-level vote fraud, this procedure should involve double-checking that air-gapped database they created.

Those are some suggestions that should help us through the current crisis; but the best long-term solution to this threat is the universal solvent: transparency.

Under that goal comes a system that allows any member of the public to oversee elections in an open and honest way.

Specifically, there are four critical components to an open and honest election:

  1. Who can vote?
  2. Who did vote?
  3. How were the votes counted?
  4. How well was each ballot’s chain of custody maintained?

Transparency in those four areas is the key to freedom. On the other hand, secrecy, (often sold to the public as “privacy”) in any of those areas is the necessity of dictators who say, “Trust me. I’m from the government.”

~ Jay