Technology and the vote in 2020

David Strom 3 Mar 2020

Four tips for a more sane and secure election season

After the turmoil of the 2016 election, consumers are asking themselves, “what will happen this time?” This series of Avast blogs take a look at the role of technology in the previous elections along with what we can expect in 2020 and what people need to know about how tech is affecting the vote. 

To better understand the current context, we should first address whether or not the Russians hacked our previous elections. In this Crowdstrike report from 2017 (which has been updated in 2020), they document two separate Russian state-sponsored hacking groups that penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers over several months during 2016. The attackers used phished emails to compromise key endpoint computers. 

But that is mostly old news. Last summer we had two other reports that showed us the extent of Russian elections hacking in our 2018 elections. Back then, Russians tried to penetrate every state’s local elections board’s operational networks. Fortunately, for the most part they weren’t successful, except in Illinois. This data comes from the Mueller report as well as from a more recent report from the Senate Intelligence Committee here. The Senate report talks about spear-phishing attacks on election officials, phony posts on social media or posts that originate from sock puppet organizations (such as Russian state-sponsored intelligence agencies), as well as the use of consultants to political campaigns that misrepresented themselves to influence elections. 

The Senate report also documents the security failings of 21 state election boards’ operations. One of the vulnerable areas is in electronic voting machines, which is a well-known problem that has been documented by a variety of security researchers, including this group at the computer science department at the  University of Michigan

More recently, there have been various news reports which have current intelligence agencies officials finding evidence that the Russians are still active in thwarting our 2020 elections too.

If you don’t want to plow through these reports, let me suggest another way to learn more about these events by watching a documentary movie on Netflix called “The Great Hack.”  The main thesis of the movie has to do with convincing a class of voters it calls the persuadables in swing districts to vote for a particular candidate, or not vote at all

So what are some takeaways for voters? Here are a few strategies. 

  • First, you should consume social media posts carefully. Don’t trust what you read without further investigation, and consider the source of the information.
  • Second, put in place a process to vet anything that is posted online. Be especially careful before reposting to your friends and followers. 
  • Next, when you do vote, choose the paper ballot option if you have it available. (In the 2020 election, it is estimated that more than 28M voters will be able to use machines that produce paper audit trails.) 
  • Finally, check the election security operations center website to see if your county or city elections authority is a member, and if not, urge them to join.

Next time, I will talk about what happened in Iowa earlier this month with their caucus voting app and where that leaves us for the 2020 primaries and general election.

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