By John Sebes

Election Meddling Using Social Media Bots & its Brush with Election Technology

For those interested in how foreign adversaries are meddling in U.S. elections with social media, there is a recent must-read paper from the NDN Think Tank: A Primer on Social Media Bots And Their Malicious Use In U.S. Politics authored by Tim Chambers of the Dewey Square Group. This report is the definitive work about:

 

The transport layer of weaponized social media content used for political purposes.

The methods work for any kind of content, whether preaching to the choir, or intentional distortion of real political events, or outright lies. Probably the most illuminating aspect of the report is the explanation of how any single blob of content gets its reputation burnished. It’s not just disinformation campaigns where the goal is to get the content widely heard or seen. It’s that, plus getting the content normalized by the support of large numbers of people. And here is the really clever bit: the content is liked/re-tweeted/etc by large numbers of who turn out not to exist including some bot-people with an (invented) impressive following or reputation.

This approach is a key part of the new information operations, and the chilling thing for me is how these info-ops are already part of current politics and electioneering, just adjacent to the actual administration and operation of elections. Since our focus is on innovative technology for election administration and operations, I have to be concerned with how election technology can be damaged by the new info-ops.

I can see adversaries revving this engine to attack U.S. elections at the level of basic trust, in contrast to the operational attacks that are the current focus of election hacking FUD.  When I started in the cyber aspect of critical infrastructure protection in early 2001, we worried about “cyber-physical” attacks, where a cyber attack would magnify a physical attack on physical infrastructure.

At the Intersection of Social Hacking & Election Administration

Now we also need to address the much more insidious and diffuse threat of cyber-social attack, where a publicly visible cyber attack on election infrastructure is performed to provide the starter fluid for bot-based information operations intended to undermine belief in election outcomes and potentially de-legitimize an election. I’m talking about malevolent technology plus social media being a machine where cyber-ops are used to intentionally create a publicly visible mole-hill, which info ops then turn into a political mountain.

A scary thought.

For myself and our work it underlines the need for election infrastructure that is publicly, demonstrably, ground-up strong against cyber-ops. With the weak and architecturally flawed election technology we have today, any claim about an election technology hack, even a completely spurious one, is just too credible by default. The readiness of election technology to buttress or reject digital attack we are addressing, but the cyber-social threat to elections requires its own focused effort as well; to my understanding the work of projects like the Belfer Center’s Defending Digital Democracy is an important step in the right direction.  Reading Chamber‘s paper on social media bots should be an early step of that effort.

— EJS

Election Technology Enigmas Considered Harmful

I have one last comment of CAP’s recent report9 Solutions to Secure America’s Elections” in addition to my previous comments and those of my colleagues here at the OSET Institute. I don’t agree that any 9 steps can “Secure America’s Elections” and especially not CAP’s 9 steps. Their recommendations are fundamentally about gradualism: the belief that what’s in place can be incrementally improved until we are “secure.” Though we can never be completely “secure”, we need more than gradualism to create fundamental changes that can significantly reduce risks to our elections, especially cyber security risks.

Curiously, despite the report’s bold title, I’m not sure the authors actually intended to advocate for only gradual improvements, because of their agreement on 2 key points. What’s missing is the explicit logical conclusion from those 2 points. The brief version is simply this:

  • If you think elections are critical to national security; and
  • If you think that current election technology is way too weak for our adversaries;
  • Then you can’t honestly limit your recommended response to Band-Aids; you have to consider wholesale replacement with solutions built for the challenges of the current threat environment.

But further, it is an enigma to me why this logic isn’t more widely accepted. I have a couple theories, related to my most important point: that wholesale replacement does not require anything like an Election Manhattan Project. In fact, the core tech has already been proven in use in other fields for years.

Agreement: It’s National Security

I’ll start with the two points that I agree with the most. The first point is national security. Elections are indeed a matter of national security, a bedrock part of our sovereignty and our ability to democratically affect the course of governance of our country. That bedrock is broadly understood of course, but only recently has there been broad awareness of how we are at risk. Our elections are in the cross-hairs of our nation-state adversaries, well funded and well equipped for hybrid cyber-operations, information operations, disinformation campaigns, and social media cyber-operations. In 2016 we saw a warm-up exercise by one adversary, but we know that there are several. Some of them have demonstrated capabilities well beyond what the public saw in 2016.

Kudos to CAP authors Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy for coming straight out with the point about national security risks. Not so long ago, a small group of election integrity and technology experts were routinely belittled with nursery-rhyme epithets about crying wolf and skies falling. Along with recent work by the Brennan Center, the EAC, Congressional testimony by DHS, among others, this CAP report helps put to rest a host of baseless optimisms about early 21st century election security. I’m grateful, but I wish I had been more a louder voice in that earlier Cassandra Chorus.

Agreement: It’s Massively Vulnerable and Exploitable

The second point that I agree with the most is the CAP report’s several observations of prior work on two points: demonstrations of the technological vulnerabilities of current voting systems; assessment of the set of broader risks to elections that are enabled by voting technology insecurity. The CAP report provides another important voice for the observation that our current technology for election infrastructure (“EI”) is mismatched for the present and future; it was never designed for or intended to operate in the current threat environment of nation state adversaries with the sophisticated capabilities that I noted above.

I believe that there is certainly room for varying assessments or assumptions about the likelihood of various types of attack, and of the likelihood of detection, and the likely consequences of detection or lack thereof. But the bottom line is that EI technical vulnerabilities are gift to our adversaries, regardless of one’s assessment of how those gifts might be used to our detriment.

Disagreement: Focus on Mitigation and Incremental Improvement

I truly respect the CAP authors’ intent of collating the most important steps that many have identified as essential for mitigation of risk, and incremental improvement of EI. Within the narrow scope of voter records management, I mostly agree with gradualism. And yes, there are some important caveats on a few items of agreement, as noted by my colleague Sergio Valente. And yes, I have some significant disagreements on the way that the CAP report treats stakeholders. But these caveats aside, I fundamentally disagree with the implied statement — which I hope the authors didn’t fully intend — that it’s enough to do gradual in-place mitigation of existing vulnerable EI.

In place mitigation is important, but as band-aids for fundamentally vulnerable EI. Apply the band-aids while getting a replacement prepared, and then jettison the band-aided EI in favor of fundamentally stronger replacement technology. Let me apologize here for the convenient short hand term “band-aid” which is really about extra-ordinary efforts in 1000’s of elections offices to mitigate the potential harm from the fundamental vulnerabilities of existing EI. This existing EI technology, which “gradualists” would have us accept as unavoidable reality, requires these extra efforts, but the efforts could well be on the short end of asymmetric conflict with word-class cyber-warriors. If that sounds fanciful to you, I respect your risk assessment of a low risk, but I ask: “Risk assessment aside, should we really accept the vulnerabilities that create the risk? Especially given the existence of proven technology alternatives?”

“But Captain, That Is Not Logical”

As I said, I understand that everyone has their own views, risk assessments, realpolitik, and numerous other factors that color their conclusions on what to do with EI that is a national security asset. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and increasingly to the opinion that they are entitled to their own facts. But nobody is entitled to their own logic; or at least Commander Spock and I hope not. Here is the logic:

  • If you accept the national security CI protection viewpoint that I and the CAP authors and many others espouse (and I know that not everyone does);
  • And if you accept that the CI that is elections infrastructure does have fundamental vulnerabilities (and I know that many have not yet understood this);
  • Then it is illogical to believe that it is sufficient to rely on unfunded labor-intensive mitigations that could well be overcome by our adversaries.

Captain, that is not logical. It is an enigma! The only 2 things that I can thing of that make sense for a blinkered view of this logical conundrum are: market dogma, and unawareness of existing alternatives.

No Manhattan Project Needed

The market dogma is what I sum up as:

“What the for profit market has no ability or incentive to develop and deliver to the government, the government will never have.”

I disagree! At the local level, that’s understandable for all but a handful of county governments who have developed a broader assessment of EI. But at a national strategy level, that assumption’s falsity is demonstrated by the history of ARPAnet, DARPA, NSFnet, e-commerce, the Global Information Grid, and the digital world at your fingertips on your “phone”.

But suppose that you admit that, in general, strategic technological hurdles can be largely overcome with basic R&D, applied R&D, and technology transfer. Admitting that, you could well believe that there is simply no fiscal or political will for an Elections Manhattan Project. Could be — and the good news is that it’s not needed. The basic R&D and applied R&D has already been done on trustworthy computing (especially fault tolerant, high assurance, fixed function, dedicated systems), and applied in practice from satellites to carriers to in-theater ad-hoc mesh networks for C4I. The task at hand is not to invent the base technology for trustworthy computing for a critical infrastructure – including that of elections. That’s already been done. The task is to:

  1. Re-use the existing core technology, applied to critical elements of voting systems;
  2. Layer on top of the core all and only the critical functions of ballot casting and counting, and back-office functions that they depend on;
  3. Do the stakeholder-centered usability engineering to ensure that the technology fits the existing resources and practices for our locally-operated, state-managed elections;
  4. Manage the technology transfer to enable the for-profit market to deliver the fruits of these labors, in a healthy competitive environment of government IT procurement for system integration and IT support services.

That’s not a Manhattan Project. The pessimistic might compare it in logistical complexity to Operation Overlord. But for elections, we did that operation already. It was called HAVA – the Act of Congress; the billions of dollars; and the replacement of punch cards and butterfly ballots and paperless mechanical voting machines. That wasn’t a great success, in part because the result included paperless electronic voting machines. But that experience provided many lessons learned in the elections community. If steps 1, 2, 3 above can be done expeditiously, then step 4 could be done faster, better, and far cheaper, given the experience of HAVA.

— EJS

 

Election Infrastructure Recommendations: We Need to Respect Our Election Officials

My thanks to the Center for American Progress (“CAP”) for their recent report “9 Solutions to Secure America’s Elections”. As my colleagues here at OSET Institute have already written, we agree with many of the report’s recommendations at a short term tactical level, but in addition have a longer term strategic view based on principles of national security, homeland security, and critical infrastructure protection. I’m very pleased that CAP has joined the discussions in the election integrity and technology community — especially the discussion about how election officials (“EOs”) can move ahead to better protect the critical election infrastructure (“EI”) that they operate. One of my two contributions to this discussion is not to disagree with CAP’s tactical recommendations, but to suggest that as guidance to EOs, any tactical recommendation is going to be more effective in a framework of greater respect for EOs.

That more respectful framework includes:

  • Acknowledge Election Officials existing activities in EI protection.
  • Acknowledge efforts in the Election Official community to increase that protection.
  • Exercise greater respect for states’ critical role in elections; not just local operation and State oversight, but also Election Infrastructure protection efforts.

I comment below on CAP’s report in each of these areas.

Respecting State’s Roles

While I don’t disagree with most of CAP’s recommendations, I do find several of them to be formulated with a common flaw — lack of acknowledgement of states’ critical roles in U.S. elections. There are several statements that use words like “require” and “mandatory.”

I object to all of these as being likely interpreted as over-riding states’ fundamental independence in matters of elections. The Federal government can’t and shouldn’t try to make any requirements, and no one else should dictate to states either. In the election integrity and technology community, we can suggest to individual states that their state election directors determine how to make new state specific requirements on their localities – for example, for uniform risk-limiting ballot audit processes and creation of public evidence from them. But it is up to states to decide what is appropriate and feasible for their state and its local elections offices.

We can hope that the growth of multi-state information sharing practices will lead to common approaches nation wide, but I don’t think it’s right to say that states need to be dictated to by anyone.

Particularly vexing is the suggestion that new Federal law should mandate vulnerability analysis of EI. Existing voting systems have already seen ample security analysis and discovery of many security vulnerabilities. Such discovery has occurred in every certified voting system product that states have assessed in efforts like TTBR, Everest, and more recent work. Federal legislators or regulators are not equipped to specify exactly what types of analysis are sufficient. Even if they were, a new unfunded Federal mandate to perform analysis would likely have a perverse effect — to shift limited funds away from the mitigation of vulnerabilities that are already well known, to required re-analysis of systems already known to highly vulnerable.

CAP makes a similar suggestion to require updating and securing voter registration (VR) systems. But this assumes that VR systems have inadequate security that isn’t being addressed. In fact, that’s not yet known. Some states have already focused on VR security, others recently sought DHS cyber security assistance, and others have not. Some VR systems might need a major re-design for cyber-security, while others might benefit from operations changes for better cyber “hygiene”. As with other activities that I list in the next section, VR cyber security improvements are ongoing.

Lastly, I find especially inappropriate the recommendation for automatic voter registration (AVR). Each state has a right to regulate its voter rolls as it sees fit, and AVR is not universally viewed as an improvement. Indeed, in some states, AVR would work against the state’s political culture that participation in elections should require a pro-active step on the voter’s part to register. It is certainly the case that adding AVR would require major technology updates to any VR system, but that is no reason to label current systems as antiquated. While some may have a political agenda for nationally uniform automatic registration, that agenda has no place in any recommendations to strengthen cyber security of the state IT systems that manage voter records.

Recommendations Already Being Followed

Of the nine recommendations, four are part of existing Election Official practices. EOs already have done, or are in the process of doing, a significant hardware and system transition. That transition includes efforts to replace aging unreliable machines, replace paperless voting machines, and support post election ballot audits. Similarly, there is an ongoing shift in ballot audit processes to adopt scientific and statistically sound methods for people to cross-check the work of fallible voting technology. (The scientific basis ensures the minimum effort for the maximum assurance that machine malfunction did not change an election result.)  Most recently, Colorado and New Mexico have made notable progress. In recommending these and other activities, we should respect that EOs already understand their importance and are pursuing them. Some EOs certainly could use assistance and encouragement that starts with respect.

Likewise, EOs already perform pre-election testing on voting machines, to the best of their abilities. But those abilities are limited by shortcomings of the voting systems that they have. One limit of particular concern is that most if not all voting machines in use today lack support for EOs to feasibly and accurately validate them. Such validation should consist of means to assess each voting machine to ensure that it remains in the original certified configuration, without modification or tampering. Given that limitation, EOs are already doing all the testing that’s meaningful to detect malfunction and unreliability.

So yes, these recommendations are sensible, but more importantly, let’s commend EOs. Let’s ask them, “What more you need to strengthen existing practices or accelerate in-progress changes?” — not just tell them to do what they are already doing.

EI Sector Formation Already in Progress

Two other CAP recommendations are about information sharing and coordination. Even leaving aside the inappropriate “mandatory” reporting idea, these two recommendations don’t recognize the extent of these and other related activities that are already ongoing: several organizations have started collaborating in the formation of election infrastructure (“EI”) as a new critical infrastructure (“CI”) sub-sector.  CAP provides helpful background to those new to CI: information about ISACs, the role of the intelligence community, the existing MS-ISAC, National Intelligence Priorities Framework, the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center and so forth. And it’s good to note one meeting hosted by EAC and DHS.

However, such meetings are part of an ongoing process in which we need to identify the key stakeholders, not just these Federal organizations and programs. EI sector formation activities already include leading local EOs, state EOs, and their organizations and associations including NASS and NASED. Rather than recommending general goals for activity in the EI sector or the community as a whole, we should be commending. Let’s commend EOs and all the stakeholder organizations for the formation work that they are already doing, and ask them, “What resources could accelerate the process?”

But further yet, we should identify specific aspects of work in progress that can be supported and accelerated by EI sector formation and sector organizations. For example, statewide uniform practices for risk limiting audits might emerge from both: inter-state information sharing that enable some states to learn from the early work of others; intrastate sharing of audit experiences to determine what works in the specific environment of each state. Intrastate sharing and cross-state local learning might also be fortified by more local stakeholder organizations, such as each state’s association of local EOs, and IAOGO.

Similarly, CAP’s “require minimum cyber security standards” for voter registration (“VR”) systems should not be cyber-operations standards imposed by some authority. Rather, effective VR security measures should emerge from on-going EI sector information sharing activities including: survey of existing practices, ongoing security assessment and remediation, and lessons learned by some states that can guide other state’s activity. The need is certainly urgent, given attacks in 2016, but professional assessment and practical remediation are called for, not top-down rules that might interfere with implementing lessons learned form the cross-state sharing activity that’s already in progress.

Summary

To close, I want to re-emphasize that most of the CAP recommendations are sound at the core, but would be better with a couple improvements:

  • subtract the “require” and “mandatory” and “Federal,” in favor of respecting states’ primacy in elections;
  • add some acknowledgement of EOs’ existing practices and efforts to improve security.

Our EOs are hardworking public servants who just received a new unfunded (for now) mandate to manage their election assets as critical infrastructure. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to do. The election integrity and technology community can have a helpful and supportive role, but it needs to start with both gratitude and respect for EOs’ work.

— EJS

Dismantling Federal Assistance to US Elections — The Freeze/Thaw Cycle

Last time I wrote in this series on the EAC being dismantled, I used the metaphor of freezing and thawing to describe not only how the EAC’s effectiveness has been limited, but also the consequence:

We now have voting systems that have been vetted with standards and processes that are almost as Jurassic as the pre-Internet era.

This time I need to support my previous claims by explaining the freeze/thaw cycle in more detail, and connecting it to the outcome of voting systems that are not up to today’s job, as we now understand it, post-2016.

The First Try

EAC’s first try at voting system quality started after the year 2000 election hanging chad debacle, and after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) designed to fix it. During the period of 2004 to 2006, the EAC was pretty busy defining standards and requirements (technically “guidelines” because states are not obligated to adopt them) for the then-next-gen of voting systems, and setting up processes for testing, review, and certification.

That first try was “good enough” for getting started on a way out of the hanging chad morass, but was woefully inadequate in hindsight. A beginning of a second try resulted in the 2007 recommendations to significantly revise the standards, because the hindsight then showed that the first try had some assumptions that weren’t so good in practice. My summary of those assumptions:

  • Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were inherently better than paper-based voting, not just for accessibility (which is a true and important point) but also for reliability, accuracy, and many other factors.
  • It’s OK if EVMs are completely paperless, because we can assume that the hardware and software will always make an accurate and permanent digital record of every voter’s choice.
  • The then current PC technology was good enough for both EVMs and back-office systems, because that PC tech was good enough desktop computing.
  • Security and quality are important, and can be “legislated” into existence by written standards and requirements, and a test process for evaluating whether a voting system meets those requirements.

Even in 2007, and certainly even more since then, we’ve seen that what these assumptions actually got us was not what we really wanted. My summary of what we got:

  • Voting machines lacking any means for people to cross-check the work of the black-box hardware and software, to detect malfunctions or tampering.
  • Voting machines and back-office systems that election officials can only assume are unmodified, un-tampered copies of the certified systems, but can’t actually validate.
  • Voting machines and back-office systems based on decades old PC technology, with all the security and reliability limitations thereof, including the ready ability of any software to modify the system.
  • Voting system software that passed testing, but when opened up for independent review in California and in Ohio, was found to be rife with security and quality problems.

Taken together, that meant that election tech broadly was physically unreliable, and very vulnerable, both to technological mischance and to intentional meddling. A decade ago, we had much less experience than today with the mischances that early PC tech is prone to. At the time, we also had much less sensitivity to the threats and risks of intentional meddling.

Freeze and Thaw

And that’s where the freeze set in. The 2007 recommendations have been gathering dust since then. A few years later, the freeze set in on EAC as well, which spent several years operating without a quorum of congressionally approved commissioners, and not able to change much – including certification standards and requirements.

That changed a couple years ago. One of the most important things that the new commissioners have done is to re-vitalize the process for modernizing the standards, requirements, and processes for new voting system. And that re-vitalization is not a moment too soon, just as most of the nation’s states and localities have been replacing decaying voting machines with “new” voting systems thatare not substantially different from what I’ve described above.

That’s where the huge irony lies – after over a decade of inactivity, the EAC has finally gotten its act together to try to become an effective voting system certification body for the future — and it is getting dismantled.

It is not just EAC that’s making progress. EAC works with NIST, and a Technical Guidelines Working Group (TGWC), and many volunteers from many organizations (including ours) that working in several groups focused on help the TGWC. We’ve dusted off the 2007 recommendations, which address how to fix at least some of those consequences I listed above. We’re writing detailed standards for interoperability, so that election officials have more choice about how to acquire and operate voting tech. I could go on about the range of activity and potential benefits, but the point is, there is lot that is currently a-building that is poised to be frozen again.

A Way Forward?

I believe that it is vitally important, indeed a matter of national security, that our election tech makes a quantum leap forward to address the substantial issues of our current threat environment, and the economic and administrative environment that our hardworking election officials face today.

If that’s to happen, then we need a way to not get frozen again, even if the EAC is dismantled. A look at various possible ways forward will be the coda for this series.

— EJS

Kudos to EAC for Exploring Critical Nature of Election Infrastructure

Kudos to EAC for this week’s public Hearing on election infrastructure as critical infrastructure! After the 2016 election cycle, I think that there is very little disagreement that election infrastructure (EI) is critical, in the sense of: vital, super-important, a matter of national security, etc. But this hearing is a bit of a turning point. I’ll explain why in terms of: discussion before the hearing, then the aftermath, and then I will make my one most important point about action going forward. I’ll close with specific recommend steps forward.

Prior Negativity

Prior to this hearing, I heard and read a lot of negativity about the idea that EI is “critical infrastructure” (CI) in the specific sense of homeland security policy. Yes, late last year, DHS did designate EI as CI, specifically as a sub-sector of the existing CI sector for government systems. And that caused alarm and the negativity I referred to, ranging from honest policy disagreement (what are the public policy ramifications of designation) to par-for-the-course political rhetoric (unprecedented Federal takeover of elections as states’ rights, etc.), and just plain “fake news” (DHS hackers breaking Federal laws to infiltrate state-managed election systems).

The fracas has been painful to me especially, as someone with years of experience in the disparate areas of cyber-security technology (since the ‘80s), critical infrastructure policy and practice (since before 9/11), DHS cyber-security research (nearly since its inception), and election technology (merely the last decade or so).

Turning Point in Dialog

That’s why the dialogue, during the EAC hearing, and the reflections in online discussion since, have been so encouraging. I hear less competing monologues and more dialogue about what EI=CI means, what official designation actually does, and how it can or can’t help us as a community respond to the threat environment. The response includes a truly essential and fundamental shift to creating, delivering, and operating EI as critical national assets like the power grid, local water and other public utilities, air traffic control, financial transaction networks, and so on. Being so uplifted by the change in tenor, I’ll drop a little concept here to blow-up some of this new dialogue:

Official CI designation is irrelevant to the way forward.

The way forward has essential steps that were possible before the official designation, and that remain possible if the designation is rescinded. These steps are urgent. Fussing over official designation is a distraction from the work at hand, and it needs to stop. EAC’s hearing was a good first step. My blog today is my little contribution to dialog about next steps.

Outlining the Way Forward

To those who haven’t been marinating in cyber CI for years, it may be odd to say that this official announcement of criticality is actually a no-op, especially given its news coverage. But thanks to changes in cyber-security law and policy over the years, the essential first steps no longer require official designation. There may be benefits over the longer term, but the immediate tasks can and should be done now, without concern for Federal policy wonkery.

Here is a short and incomplete list of essential tasks, each of which I admit deserves loads more unpacking and explaining to non-CI-dweeb people, than I can possibly do in a blog. But regardless of DHS policy, and definitely in light of the 2016 election disruption experience, the EI community can and should:

  • Start the formation of one or more of the information-sharing communities (like ISAOs or similar) that are bread-and-butter of other CI sectors.
  • If needed, take voluntary action to get DoJ and DHS assistance in the legal side of such formation.
  • Use the information sharing organizations to privately share and discuss what really happened in 2016 to prepare, detect, and respond to attacks on EI.
  • Likewise use the organizations to jointly consider available assistance, and to assess:
    • the range of types of CI related assistance that are available to election officials – both cyber and otherwise;
    • the costs and benefits of using them; and
    • for those participants who have already done or choose to voluntarily use that assistance (from DHS or elsewhere) to, inform all EI/CI operators who choose to participate.
  • Begin to form sector-specific CI guidelines specifically about changes required to operate EI assets as CI.

And all that is just to get started, to enable several further steps, including: informing the election tech market of what needs to respond to; helping the 1000s of local election offices to begin to learn how their responsibilities evolve during the transformation of EI to truly part of CI in practice.

— EJS

The Freeze Factor – Dismantling Federal Assistance to U.S. Elections

“Frozen” is my key word for what happens to the voting system certification process after EAC is dismantled. And in this case, frozen can be really harmful. Indeed, as I will explain, we’ve already seen how harmful.

Last time I wrote in this series on the EAC being dismantled (see the first and second posts), I said that EAC’s certification function is more important than ever. To re-cap:

  • Certification is the standards, requirements, testing, and seal-of-approval process by which local election officials gain access to new election tech.
  • The testing is more important than ever, because of the lessons learned in 2016:

1. The next gen of election technology needs to be not only safe and effective, but also …

2. … must be robust against whole new categories of national security threats, which the voting public only became broadly aware of in late 2016.

Today it’s time to explain just how ugly it could get if the EAC’s certification function gets derailed. Frozen is that starting point, because frozen is exactly where EAC certification has been for over a decade, and as a result, voting system certification is simply not working. That sounds harsh, so let me first explain the critical distinction between standards and process, and then give credit where credit is due for the hardworking EAC folks doing the certification process.

  • Standards comprise the critical part of the voting system certification program. Standards define what a voting system is required to do. They define a test lab’s job for determining whether a voting system meets these requirements.
  • Process the other part of the voting system certification program, composed of the set of activities that the players – mainly a voting system vendor, a test lab, and the EAC – must collectively step through to get to the Federal “seal of approval” that is the starting point for state election officials to make their decisions about voting system to allow in their state.

Years worth of EAC efforts have improved the process a great deal. But by contrast, the standards and requirements have been frozen for over a decade. During that time, here is what we got in the voting systems that passed the then-current and still-current certification program:

Black-box systems that election officials can’t validate, for voting that voters can’t verify, with software that despite passing testing, later turned out to have major security and reliability problems.

That’s what I mean by a certification program that didn’t work, based solely on today’s outcome – election tech that isn’t up to today’s job, as we now understand the job to be, post-2016. We are still stuck with the standards and requirements of the process that did not and does not work. While today’s voting systems vary a bit in terms of verifiability and insecurity, what’s described above is the least common denominator that the current certification program has allowed to get to market.

Wow! Maybe that actually is a good reason to dismantle the EAC – it was supposed to foster voting technology quality, and it didn’t work. Strange as it may sound, that assessment is actually backwards. The root problem is that as a Federal agency, the EAC had been frozen itself. It got thawed relatively recently, and has been taking steps to modernize the voting systems standards and certification. In other words, just when the EAC has thawed out and is starting to re-vitalize voting system standards and certification, it is getting dismantled – that at a time when we just recently understood how vulnerable our election systems are.

To understand the significance of what I am claiming here, I will have be much more specific in my next segment, about the characteristics of the certification that didn’t work, how the fix started over a decade ago, got frozen, and has been thawing. When we understand the transformational value of the thaw, we can better understand what we need in terms of a quality program for voting systems, and how we might get to such a quality program if the EAC is dismantled.

— EJS

Blockchains for Elections, in Maine: “Don’t Be Hasty”

Many have noted with interest some draft legislation in Maine that mandates the exploration of how to use blockchain technology to further election transparency.  My comment is, to quote one well known sage, “Don’t Be Hasty”. First, though, let me say that I am very much in favor of any state resolving to study the use of innovative tech elections, even one as widely misunderstood as blockchains. This bill is no exception: study is a great idea.

However, there is already elsewhere a considerable amount of haste in the elections world, with many enthusiasts and over a dozen startups thinking that since blockchains have revolutionized anonymous financial transactions — especially via BitCoin — elections can benefit too. But actually not a lot, at least in terms of voting. As one of my colleagues who is an expert on both elections and advanced cryptography says, “Blockchain voting is just a bad idea – even for people who like online voting.” It will take some time and serious R&D to wrestle to the ground whether and how blockchains can be one of (my count) about half a dozen innovative ingredients that might make online voting worth trying.

However, in the meantime, there are plenty of immediate term good uses of blockchain technology for election transparency, including two of my favorites that could be put into place fairly quickly in Maine, if the study finds it worthwhile.

  1. In one case, each transaction is a change to the voter rolls: adding or deleting a voter, or updating a voter’s name or location or eligibility. Publication — with provenance — would provide the transparency needed to find the truth or lack thereof of claims of “voter roll purging” that crop up in every election.
  2. In the other case, each transaction is either that of a voter checking in to vote in person — via a poll book paper or digital — or having their absentee ballot received, counted, or rejected. I hope the transparency value is evident in the public knowing in detail who did and didn’t vote in a given election.

In each case, there is a public interest in knowing the entirety of a set of transactions that have an impact on every election, and in being able to know that claimed log of transaction records is the legitimate log. Without that assurance of “data provenance” there are real risks of disinformation and confusion, to the detriment of confidence in elections, and confusion rather than transparency. Publication of these types transaction data, with the use of blockchains, can provide the provenance that’s needed for both confidence and transparency. Figuring out the details will require study — Don’t Be Hasty — but it would be a big step in election transparency. Go Maine!

— EJS

Cancellation of Federal Assistance to US Elections — The Good, The Bad, and The Geeky

Recently I wrote about Congress dismantling the only Federal agency that helps states and their local election officials ensure that the elections that they conduct are verifiable, accurate, and secure — and transparently so, to strengthen public trust in election results. Put that way, it may sound like dismantling the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is both a bad idea, and also poorly timed after a highly contentious election in which election security, accuracy, and integrity were disparaged or doubted vocally and vigorously.

As I explained previously, there might be a sensible case for shutdown with a hearty “mission accomplished”  — but only with a narrow view of original mission of the EAC. I also explained that since its creation, EAC’s evolving role has come to include duties that are uniquely imperative at this point in U.S. election history. What I want to explain today is that evolved role, and why it is so important now.

Suppose that you are a county election official in the process of buying a new voting system. How do you know that what you’re buying is a legit system that does everything it should do, and reliably? It’s a bit like a county hospital administrator considering adding new medications to their formulary — how do you know that they are safe and effective? In the case of medications, the FDA runs a regulatory testing program and approves medications as safe and effective for particular purposes.

In the case of voting systems, the EAC (with support from NIST) has an analogous role: defining the requirements for voting systems, accrediting test labs, defining requirements for how labs should test products, reviewing test labs’ work, and certifying those products that pass muster. This function is voluntary for states, who can choose whether and how to build their certification program on the basis of federal certification. The process is not exactly voluntary for vendors, but since they understandably want to have products that can work in every state, they build products to meet the requirements and pass Federal certification. The result is that each locality’s election office has a state-managed approved product list that typically includes only products that are Federally certified.

Thus far the story is pretty geeky. Nobody gets passionate about standards, test labs, and the like. It’s clear that the goals are sound and the intentions are good. But does that mean that eliminating the EAC’s role in certification is bad? Not necessarily, because there is a wide range of opinion on EAC’s effectiveness in running certification process. However, recent changes have shown how the stakes are much higher, and the role of requirements, standards, testing, and certification are more important than ever. The details about those changes will be in the next installment, but here is the gist: we are in the middle of a nationwide replacement of aging voting machines and related election tech, and in an escalating threat environment for global adversaries targeting U.S. elections. More of the same-old-same-old isn’t nearly good enough. But how would election officials gain confidence in new election tech that’s not only safe and effective, but robust against whole new categories of threat?

— EJS

The Myth of Technologist Suppression of Internet Voting

I’ve got to debunk a really troubling rumor. It’s about Internet voting, or more specifically, about those who oppose it. Longtime readers will recall that Internet voting is not one of the favorite topics here, not because it isn’t interesting, but because there are so many more nearer-term low-effort ways to use tech to improve U.S. elections. However, I’ve heard this troubling story enough times that I have to debunk it today, and return to more important topics next time.

Here’s the gist of it: there is a posse of respectable computer scientists, election tech geeks, and allies who are:

  • Un-alterably opposed to Internet voting, for ever, and
  • Lying about i-voting’s feasibility in order to prevent its use as a panacea for increased participation and general wonderfulness, because they have a hidden agenda to preserve today’s low-participation elections.

I have to say, simply: no. I’ve been in this pond for long enough to know just about every techie, scientist, academic, or other researcher who understands both U.S. elections and modern technology. We all have varying degrees of misgivings about current i-voting methods, but I am confident that every one of these people stands with me on these 4 points.

  1. We oppose the increased use of i-voting as currently practiced.
  2. We very much favor use of the Internet for election activities of many kinds, potentially nearly everything except returning ballots; many of us have been working on such improvements for years.
  3. We strongly believe and support the power of invention and R&D to overcome the tech gaps in current i-voting, despite believing that some of the remaining issues are really* hard problems.
  4. We strongly believe that i-voting will eventually be broadly used, simply because of demand.

We all share a concern that if there is no R&D on these hard problems, then eventually today’s highly vulnerable forms of i-voting will be used widely, to the detriment of our democracy, and to the advantage of our nation-state adversaries who are already conducting cyber-operations against U.S. elections.

I believe that we need a two pronged approach: to support to the R&D that’s needed, but in the mean time to enable much needed modernization of our existing clunky decaying elections infrastructure, to lay the rails for future new Internet voting methods to be adopted.

Returning to the kooky story … but what about all those Luddite nay-sayers who say i-voting is impossible and that the time for i-voting is “never”? There are none, at least among tech professionals and/or election experts. There is some harsh rhetoric that’s often quoted, but it is against the current i-voting methods, which are indeed a serious problem.

But for the future, the main difference among us is about the little asterisk that I inserted in point 3 above — it means any number of “really” before “hard.” I’m grateful to colleague Joe Kiniry of Galois and of Free&Fair, for noting that our differences are really “just the number of ‘really’ we put before the word ‘hard’.”

— EJS

PS: A footnote about i-voting Luddites and election tech Luddites more broadly. There are indeed some vocal folks who are against the use of technology in elections, for example, those that advocate for a return to hand-counted paper ballots, with no computers used for ballot casting or counting. They do indeed say “never” when it comes to using the Internet for voting, and indeed e-voting as well. But that’s because of personal beliefs and policy decisions, not because of a professionally informed judgment that hard problems in computer science can never be solved. In fact, these anti-tech people are the other end of the spectrum from the folks who so strongly favor i-voting at any cost that they caricature nay-sayers of any kind; both folks use out of context quotes about current i-voting drawbacks as way to shift a conversation to the proposition of “Internet voting, no way, not ever” from the more important but nuanced questions of: Internet voting, not whether, but how?

Dismantling Federal Assistance to US Elections — Good, Bad, or Ugly?

The U.S. Congress is in the process of dismantling the Federal agency that provides assistance to the local election offices that run all U.S. elections, and to the states that oversee them. That is the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a small agency that’s not well understood by a great many people — including several who have been asking me, and other election technology experts, whether dismantling it is wise, and what the effects will be.

I aim to answer all those questions, but in multiple short segments, of which this is first. I want to first lay out some of the issues that people need to decide for themselves whether it is a good or bad idea, or whether there are consequences that could be ugly. Then in other segments, I’ll get to some of the functions of the EAC that will be missed when it is gone, and the consequences of the gaps created by EAC’s exit.

Original Mission: Accomplished?

How you might think about dismantling the EAC is of course largely driven by what you think its function and value is. One of its original functions was part of a critical response to the hanging chad filled election dysfunction of the 2000 election — a good chunk of Federal funding to help states replace flawed voting systems with ones that didn’t depend inconsistent human interpretation of ballots (think of those photos of Florida election officials squinting at punch ballots to see exactly how the chad was hanging). A major function for EAC was to manage the disbursement of funds to states for eligible projects including but not limited voting system replacement.

That’s one reason why it might be good to dismantle EAC with a “mission accomplished” status: those funds are long gone, and the post-2000 voting replacement is finished. But what about EAC’s other election assistance activities? To be sure, states and localities are getting some ongoing support in terms of election management resources, research and data, and a small batch of ongoing grant money to disburse. But is it vital? How much value is really being delivered to EAC beneficiaries in state and local government? Clearly, some in Congress and elsewhere don’t think that the ongoing value is high, and most of the value desired by the original Help America Vote Act (HAVA), that created EAC, has already been delivered.

Mission Evolved

As a result, I think that it’s not a bad idea, and not even ugly, if you consider the value of the EAC in the original context of HAVA and EAC’s original mission. But that was well over a decade ago and a lot has changed. In following segments, I want to highlight some of the functions of the EAC that have evolved over time, and have become very important — indeed visibly very important in the last year. That change over time, the public visibility, means that a couple odd corners of EAC’s original mission might be quite important indeed. And, as EAC is being dismantled, there are important questions about how states and localities might or might not be able to pick up the slack in these important areas.

Here’s a teaser for those changes. Just in the last year, the public at large has learned what election experts have known for a while: the current voting systems (mostly paid for by HAVA) turned out not to be as wonderful as hoped, are wearing out, needing replacement, and were not and are not designed to be robust against manipulation against state sponsored adversaries. In short, we now know that U.S. elections are a target, a national security risk, and they run on antique insecure technology.

What’s EAC’s connection with that? More next time.

— EJS