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.



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