Will Outdated US Procedures Allow Vote Hacking?

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

August 10, 2016

The hack of the Democratic National Committee in America has revealed that the party helped to influence the presidential primaries. The damning documents – leaked by hacker Guccifer 2.0 on Wikileaks – have led directly to a number of high-profile resignations. Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Amy Dacey CEO, as well as CFO Brad Marshall and Communications Director Luis Miranda have all left their positions following evidence of electioneering and probable vote hacking.

Now cyber security experts are warning that in-party collusion, that guaranteed Hillary Clinton her nomination, might be the least of US’ problems.

The suggestion being made is that due to outdated vote taking and counting methodologies hackers could easily influence this year’s elections. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, has already initiated talks about making the US voting system part of US ‘critical infrastructure’,

‘We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid. There’s a vital national interest in our electoral process.’

In fact, according to a report released by Election Justice USA (EJU) the presidential race appears to have already been influenced by hackers during the primaries. According to that report, substantial evidence exists to suggest that vote machine tampering may have occurred during the primaries. If that is the case, then it seems likely that the overall outcome of the presidential race is also under threat of being massaged by a hidden hand.

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Vulnerable Technology & Vote Hacking

Andrew Appel, a professor from Princeton University, has already proven that the Sequoia AVC Advantage – a voting machine used in Louisiana, New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania (amongst others) – is incredibly vulnerable to cybercriminal attacks.

The voting machine, which was first introduced in 2002, is a Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) device. Back then the device was considered secure. Over the last decade, however, mountains of evidence has emerged from the cyber security sector that suggests the technology is outdated and vulnerable to attack.

In fact, Appel and his colleague Ed Felten have long been predicting that the temptation to affect US elections is far too great and much too easy not to one day become a reality. Has that day arrived?

Presidential Voting Chaos?

One issue is that the US has more than 9,000 jurisdictions, and each one of those is responsible for handling its corner of the elections. With each state having its own particular executive formalities, software, hardware and security infrastructure – the US elections are far from a standardized process.

With such a lot of variation across the country and known vulnerabilities in the machines, it is no wonder that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering taking steps to shore up the voting infrastructure using national standards. A best practices document currently being prepared by DHS is designed to educate election operatives about security practices to stop vote hacking and election fraud.

With EJU convinced that the primary results were corrupted, however, the big question is: Will those protocols be enough to stop the election being rigged? Sadly, the answer is probably no.

For a start, there is stacks of evidence to suggest that the election process has already been subjected to vote hacking. If that is true, then the election is already broken – even if it doesn’t suffer from anymore manipulation.

With so much at stake, and vulnerabilities waiting to be taken advantage of, it seems highly likely that there could be more nefarious meddling to come before the next President is announced.

Institutional Election Fraud?

White House spokesman Josh Earnest has suggested that voting variations across the country could actually act as a form of cyber security,

‘That varied infrastructure and those different systems also pose a difficult challenge to potential hackers. It’s difficult to identify a common vulnerability.’

One can’t help but feel, however, that his theory is a pipedream. After all, it seems somewhat optimistic to hope that chaos itself might help to fend off election fraud.

At least Jeh Johnson is admitting that the voting system is outdated and in serious need of overhaul,

‘There are various different points in the process that we have to be concerned about, so this is something that we are very focused on right at the moment.’

Too little too late

With the election process under way, and the warning of cyber security researchers long coming. One can’t help but feel that the DHS’ best practices document is little more than smoke and mirrors. A little bit of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, agrees that the potential for hacking is stratospheric. He also does a good job of explaining why Earnest’s fantastical version of events is such utter nonsense.

Firstly, most of the machines that handle the voting process are not attached to the Internet. This means that contrary to the rhetoric being promoted by the US government; any election fraud will not be at the hands of Russian, Chinese, or rogue hackers situated in a dark basement somewhere. Rather, if any more election rigging is likely to occur, it will be at the hands of some actor within the US with access to the machines themselves.

vote hackingThe research that Appel carried out at Princeton corroborates that opinion. During that study, the professor and a graduate student called Alex Halderman found that the best way to hack the DRE voting machines was to remove the four ROM chips. Having done that, purposefully designed chips with specially written firmware – that subtly alters the election results – can be installed as replacements without anyone noticing.

Hacked at Home

With that in mind, it stands to reason that any attempt to influence the US elections is far more likely to come from within the US. Either institutionally enacted by the elite oligarchy, or at the hands of one of the opposing parties. One thing is for sure, without an independent inquest into the election’s procedures (and outcome) we will likely never know whether democracy won in 2016. As Rubin says,

‘There are a thousand points of vulnerability [and] anyone with access to the machines at any stage could attack them.’

Sadly, however, that inquest is largely impossible because 16 swing states (that could massively influence who becomes the next President) have inadequate voter verification paper trails. Meaning that the election could easily be rigged, and yet the only evidence would be wildly different exit poll results. Like the ones encountered during the primaries, where Clinton scored up to 30 points higher than expected in state after state with DRE voting machines. The American Nightmare continues.




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