NBC News, Voting Machines, and a Grandmother’s PC
I’d like to explain more precisely what I meant by “your grandmother’s PC” in the NBC TV Bay Area’s report on election technology. Several people thought I was referring to voting machines as easily hacked by anyone with physical access, because despite appearances:
Voting machines are like regular old PCs inside, and like any old PC …
- … it will be happy to run any program you tell it to, where:
- “You” is anyone that can touch the computer, even briefly, and
- “Program” is anything at all, including malicious software specially created to compromise the voting machine.
That’s all true, of course, as many of us have seen recently in cute yet fear mongering little videos about how to “hack an election.” However, I was referring to something different and probably more important: a regular old PC running some pretty basic windows-XP application software, that an election official installed on the PC in the ordinary way, and uses in the same way as anything else.
That’s your “grandmother’s PC,” or in my son’s case, something old and clunky that looks a exactly like the PC that his grandfather had a decade plus ago – minus some hardware upgrades and software patches that were great for my father, but for voting systems are illegal.
But why is that PC “super important”? Because the software in question is the brains behind every one of that fleet of voting machines, a one stop shop to hack all the voting machines, or just fiddle vote totals after all those carefully and securely operated voting machines come home from the polling places. It’s an “election management system” (EMS) that election officials use to create the data that tells the voting machines what to do, and to combine the vote tally data into the actual election results.
That’s super important.
Nothing wrong with the EMS software itself, except for the very poor choice of creating it to run on a PC platform that by law is locked in time as it was a decade or so ago, and has no meaningful self-defenses in today threat environment. As I said, it wasn’t a thoughtful choice – nobody said it would be a good idea to run this really important software on something as easily hacked as anyone’s grandparent’s PC. But it was a pragmatic choice at the time, in the rush to the post-hanging-chads Federally funded voting system replacement derby. We are still stuck with the consequences.
It reminds me of that great old radio show, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where after stealing what seems like the greatest ship in the galaxy, the starship Heart of Gold, our heroes are stuck in space-time with Eddie Your Ship-Board Computer, “ready to get a bundle of kicks from any program you care to run through me.” The problem, of course, is that while designed to do an improbably large number of useful things, it’s not able to do one very important thing: steer the ship after being asked to run a program to learn why tea tastes good.
Election management systems, voting machines, and other parts of a voting system, all have an individual very important job to do, and should not be able to do anything else. It’s not hard to build systems that way, but that’s not what’s available from today’s 3 vendors in the for-profit market for voting systems, and services to operate them to assist elections officials. We can fix that, and we are.
But it’s the election officials, many many of them public servants with a heart of gold, that should really be highlighted. They are making do with what they have, with enormous extra effort to protect these vulnerable systems, and run an election that we all can trust. They deserve better, we all deserve better, election technology that’s built for elections that are Verifiable, Accurate, Secure, and Transparent (VAST as we like to say). The “better” is in the works, here at OSET Institute and elsewhere, but there is one more key point.
Don’t be demoralized by the fear uncertainty and doubt about hacking elections. Vote. These hardworking public servants are running the election for each of us, doing their best with what they have. Make it worth something. Vote, and believe what is true, that you are an essential part of the process that makes our democracy to be truly a democracy.
— John Sebes