It Doesn't Take a Foreign Government to Hack into Our Flimsy Election System
Parallel narratives of deepening intrigue and outright denial unfolded Friday, as new revelations surfaced about Russian hacking to steer the presidential election while states showed they were afraid to look under hood to see what happened.
Out of the blue, President Obama’s national security adviser said the White House was ordering a new review of Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election, saying there is more to be learned from that affair that benefited the GOP and Donald Trump. Later Friday, the Washington Post reported a secret CIA assessment said the Russians helped Trump—which he denied.
In stark contrast, in federal court in Philadephia, lawyers for Green presidential candidate Jill Stein were challenging objections by top election officials for the right to examine Pennsylvania's aged electronic voting systems for evidence of hacking as a part of their effort to recount its presidential vote. That bench is expected to rule against Stein as early as Monday. (Also on Friday, Michigan's Supreme Court shut down that state's unfinished presidential recount, while a federal court in Wisconsin rejected a GOP suit to stop that state's recount.)
This dichotomy, of escalating claims that Russian hacking and electoral interference helped Trump win an Electoral College majoirty, and a systemic refusal by senior election officials and judges to verify the votes in 2016's key battleground states, will soon disappear under the political tsunami surrounding the White House probe—Obama's December surprise.
But before most of the media turns away from covering Stein's presidential recounts, it should heed what a handful of election integrity activists—including top Silicon Valley programmers and computer security academics at leading universities—have found as they observed the recount in Wisconsin. In short, their discovery of a major hacking pathway into widely used ballot scanners is also a pathway that could have been used to access the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign's communications.
"Whether from abroad or from a basement in Peoria, our machines are equally susceptible,” Stein said, in a statement Friday praising Obama for launching the Rusian hacking probe, but also emphasizing there are many accessible targets to tilt the vote.
The White House Bombshell
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser, told reporters about the new probe early Friday, using carefully measured words that didn't reveal what the WaPo reported later in the day, that the CIA had already secretly concluded that Russia helped Trump.
“The president has directed the intelligence community to conduct a full review of what happened during the 2016 election process and to capture lessons learned from that,” she told reporters. “We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after action, to understand what this means, what has happened, and to impart those lessons learned. And that’s what we’re going to go about doing.”
Monaco's words didn't add much to what's been said for months. During the 2016 campaign, Washington intelligence officials blamed Russia for stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff. In October, the officials said the hacks were directed by “Russia’s senior-most officials” in an unprecedented effort to interfere in the election.
Meanwhile, as Election Day passed and election integrity activists like Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, among others, were looking for clues to explain Trump's upset victories because they'd been following Russia's purported hacks of U.S. voting infrastructure from the last summer.
Federal officials said a Florida contractor managing statewide voter registration databases in key battleground states including Florida and North Carolina had been hacked—with Russia as the top suspect—and later 200,000 voters’ information was taken from Illinois. The feds issued warnings to 20 states to protect their election systems, but local officials have said there was no cause for concern, seeking to quickly change the subject. The FBI said there was no threat because most voting machines are not online.
In the meantime, outside of official Washington, Stein's recount started. In Wisconsin, the election integrity activists discovered a previously unknown but major hacking point of entry. They found cellular phone signal modems were installed in commonly used scanners that count ballots at precincts and electronically report those counts to county central tabulators. They said commercially available tools can easily intercept these cellular phone signals. It does not take much, they said, to repurpose these tools to alter data transmissions or insert malware that can implant itself into central tabulators and be poised to readjust vote counts.
This interception technology can capture cellphone communications, Mickey Duniho, a retired National Security Agency staffer told AlterNet. In addition to possibly tampering with the vote counts, he said it could also have been one way that the Democrats and Clinton campaign communications were breached. (If this seems too much like a spy novel, recall that New York City police were caught lying about using similar spyware.) FBI Director James Comey said America's voting systems were too decentralized and unconnected to the internet, concluding they could not be hacked; but intercepting cellular modem signals is another path.
Recounts Thwarted, Just When Evidence Is Needed
Stein issued a statement Friday praising the White House investigation while also seeking to make the connection to the election integrity issues underlying her recount effort. It may seem like a radical series of steps to jump from observing aging vote-counting equipment that’s improperly functioning (incorrectly recording or counting ballots); to machinery that has been programmed to skip reading presidential votes (leaving missing votes for president, as in Michigan, which reported 75,000 such undervotes); to partisan agents programming paperless voting systems to readjust the totals as the count mounts (creating a pattern in which one candidate keeps winning on paper ballots (as Hillary Clinton did in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) but keeps losing on paperless systems (as Trump did in these states). Or maybe that's not radical, but a logical application of available technologies.
Stein’s campaign has been fighting in court—and mostly losing—for the right to conduct hand counts of all available paper ballots, which would reveal machine malfunctions or vote count tampering. She also wants to examine county electronic tabulators to see if any traces of hacking can be found, which has never been granted—and is very hard to do because voting machine manufacturers have privatized the tools used by this sector of government and consider their computer code as trade secrets. Ironically, as Stein's effort faces increasingly steep odds, the White House announcement Friday of a new investigation validates her concerns.
"Today's extraordinary announcement by the President should make clear that the threat of hacking in this election is creating serious concern at the highest levels of our government,” Stein said Friday. “We must also stress that concerns about the security and accuracy of our election system extend into the realm of human and machine error, where there is already evidence before our eyes of widespread machine failure. We must get rid of tamper- and error-prone electronic voting machines and work toward a verifiable paper ballot system, which has long been central to the Green Party’s democracy platform.”
“Despite overwhelming evidence and consensus from cyber-security and computer science experts that our election system is vulnerable to hacking, manipulation, malfunction and human error, the political establishment in Washington has dismissed the need for comprehensive recounts of the 2016 election,” she continued.
That’s true, even as several members of Congress have said they want to investigate Russia’s interference in the election. Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-CA and Elijah Cummings, D-MD, sponsored legislation to create a bipartisan, independent commission. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, who previously called on Congress to investigate, said this week he would head up a review. But when it comes to looking at these issues in local elections, official Washington has turned away.
“They have criticized it for a ‘lack of evidence,’” Stein said, “giving no regard to the simple facts that optical scan machines and black box electronic machines used in our elections have been proven to be error-prone and easily hackable, and despite the fact that 20 state voter registration databases, the DNC and personal email accounts were hacked this year. For the purpose of the recount, it doesn't matter where hacks originated."
Stein said it doesn't matter where the hackers are, "whether from abroad or from a basement in Peoria, our machines are equally susceptible.”
That last point is the most important—that whatever foreign agents can orchestrate can also be executed by locally committed partisans with the skill and motivation to win at all costs. That’s why the presidential recounts are needed to verify the vote count and expose the unreliable and vulnerable features of voting machinery. That's why it is a travesty that clues found in observing the recount in states that don't want to look under the hood could be critical links in the White House's Russia electoral hacking probe.
The White House's announcement that there is more to the Russian hacking story is a stunning reminder that cyber interference in elections is not just a nation-state affair. As the election integrity activists in Wisconsin discovered, the same software tools that can capture a presidential campaign’s e-mails also can be used to intercept vote counts and implant malware to readjust the results.