The election of the President of the US was wide open to cyberattacks and other malpractices from state actors and lone wolves. Sandy Clark, a security researcher at Pennsylvania University, said: “Those of us who know how vulnerable the voting systems are in these elections are terribly afraid.”
An HBO investigative television documentary Kill Chain graphically portrayed what happened in the 2016 presidential contest and how the electoral system could easily be hacked, because of the weaknesses of the voting machines and the absence of reliable paper trail, among other shortcomings.
It interviewed a shadowy hacker with a South Indian accent who reportedly entered the main computer of the election in Alaska four years ago from an IP address of a New Delhi power plant and was apparently capable of causing havoc.
Going by a pseudonym of @cyberheist2, the man said: “I mean, literally, I could have made any changes in the system. I could delete the candidate. I could alter any data, any vote.” He claimed he refrained from doing so for fear that if he was caught, he would be “destroyed”.
In the US, the home of capitalism, even elections are outsourced to the private sector, with three companies (accused of a lack of transparency) providing hardware and software and non-governmental institutions entrusted to conduct them. They are also decentralised to the extent of counties and districts within the 50 states that comprise the country enjoying authority over the process.
The programme began with a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey being asked by a US Senate committee: “Do you have any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections?” He emphatically answered: “None.”
Ion Sancho, who was supervisor of elections in a county in Florida, corroborated that in 2016 he was on a conference call in which the FBI warned “a foreign power had penetrated a vendor which does work in Florida”. He added: “It didn’t take us long to figure out that they were talking about the GRU, i.e., Russia’s military intelligence service.”
Machine malfunction was reported from a number of counties in various states for different reasons. Sancho said: “There is no such thing as a glitch. That’s a term we use to hide problems.”
Twenty-five-year-old Reality Winner, an intelligence contractor, leaked a top-secret National Security Agency intercept which established attacks on software around the states. She was convicted and imprisoned for five years. Sancho described her as a “heroine”.
A voter deposits a ballot into an official ballot drop box in Washington DC | Photo: Bloomberg
Every state was allegedly targeted. Michael Daniel, who was a White House cybersecurity coordinator during the 2016 election, remarked: “This was a very large-scale operation, beyond anything we had really anticipated.”
Harri Hursti, a Finnish specialist in hacking techniques and the prime mover behind the probe, asserted: “Everything is hackable, always.” A model of a voting machine that Hursti exposed by hacking it in 2005 was slated to be used in 20 of the American states in the 2020 election.
Clark emphasised: “These are just computers. We call them voting machines. But they are nothing more than obsolete computers.” She recommended an optical scanner to record ballots.
US Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden
There were demonstrations of multiple frailties. Hacking could be carried out wirelessly or any time a voting machine was linked to a local area network. It only needs selective intervention, such as in voting centres in certain precincts, to alter the outcome. For instance, if there is subtle interference in an area known to be heavily in favour of one of the candidates or parties, transforming the voting here can decisively favour opponents.
Philip Stark, professor of statistics at University of California, Berkeley, maintained: “The best technology for voter verifiability is hand-marked ballots.” Alternatively, he suggested: “You start looking at paper and you keep looking at paper until you have convincing evidence that looking at all of it wouldn’t change the result.” He explained it as “an intelligent incremental recount that stops as soon as it’s clear it’s pointless”.
Professor Alex of Michigan University, well known for his knowledge of voting machines, highlighted it’s important to “make sure what’s on that paper matches the results that the computers are saying”.
The US Election Assistance Commission is an advisory body with sensitive data on all states. Its secure site was also hacked. However, its chair Thomas Hicks argued American elections are secure. At the US Senate, the Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell has blocked legislation for corrective measures.