Technical glitch at Iowa caucuses bares voting security concerns

Troy Price
Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price speaks about the delay in Iowa caucus results Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Americans watched in disbelief, glued to their TV sets, smartphones and tablets, on Monday night as the Iowa caucuses, the first official leg of the 2020 presidential race, never even got out of the starting blocks.

A mechanical malfunction with the app used to tally the votes forced a delay of almost 24 hours, until Tuesday night. A predictable wave of speculation about cyber-vulnerabilities swept the nation during the down time.

Finally, Iowa Democratic Party leaders put the gossip to rest with a statement:

As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.

The glitch could be costly for the Democratic Party, as many supporters’ confidence in the voting process seemed shaken.

U.S. intelligence officials, acutely aware that many Americans vividly remember Russia’s 2016 election interference activities, have spent years tracking election threats targeting both the 2018 midterms and this year’s general election.

They’ve determined that an expansive wave of actors are relentlessly probing vulnerabilities for an opening to alter the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.

Members of Congress who serve on committees that oversee the intelligence community’s election security efforts believe immediate, strong action has to be taken.

“If we’ve learned anything, it’s that securing our elections is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. Because as our security measures get smarter, so do the malicious actors trying to interfere in our democracy,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to WTOP.

Election threat actors have a Plan B

Russia, China and Iran are leading the way in election interference efforts, with hacktivists and even domestic activists not with a nation-state right on their heels. America’s top election security officials say that changing the election results may not be their ultimate goal.

Theft of voter profiles from registration databases is, according to the intelligence community’s top election security official, is a very likely objective.

“We could see adversaries interested in that information for what we would consider traditional intelligence and espionage purposes,” said Shelby Pierson, the election threats executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In an exclusive interview, Pierson said these actors are also focused on enabling “more focused and more effective targeting of influence campaigns.”

Pierson said this information could provide hostile intelligence services the elements they can use against the U.S. later. “So, it’s not just about the actual vote-casting. It’s acquiring valuable demographic data about the American political landscape that then can enable the influence operations.”

Influence campaigns or operations are designed to influence the views of targeted individuals or populations on issues.

According to a 2017 U.S. Intelligence Community assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, influence operations played a key role. In subsequent public statements, intelligence officials pointed out that other nation-states and actors are utilizing influence operations in a variety of ways to probe Americans’ thinking.

The dense, data-rich digital environment of 2020, Pierson said, affords adversaries a high level of accuracy, specificity and efficiency in how they look at specific populations in the U.S.

Those groups, sorted demographically, are subject to influence “through a broad swath of measures, which could include everything from social media to traditional influence,” Pierson said.

Changing vote totals

Another reason adversaries look to run influence campaigns rather than change election outcomes: It’s easier.

The collective processes of voting, and then tallying and certifying the votes, in a presidential election presents a complex obstacle course of defenses that hackers would have to defeat individually in order to change the outcome of any given election.

“It is frankly very difficult to do this,” Pierson said, “because of the broad and complicated enterprise across a whole spectrum of state and local jurisdictions that, in aggregate, create the outcome of an election.”

Specifically, Pierson said, “If you’re an adversary, you have to be able to potentially affect several different milestones of auditability and counting that have been invested in, including even technical sensors that DHS has sponsored on the network.”

Pierson points out that “at this juncture, we do not have any intelligence information to suggest that adversaries have sought to compromise voting tallies or change voting numbers.”

With Election Day still nine months away, the intelligence community expects a variety of threats to emerge, so they will deploy a variety of weapons to disrupt them.

“It’s frankly a suite of tools” that includes “offensive cyberoperations and defensive measures in terms of cyber-hygiene,” Pierson said.

Another, Warner said, is “legislation that sheds light on political ads online, because folks deserve to know who’s really funding these ads. We also need to make sure that social media platforms are being held responsible for properly handling inauthentic accounts and synthetic content.”

Dozens of Democratic and Republican primaries remain. Americans will likely be inundated with political messages on TV and in their inboxes just before they go to the ballot boxes.

Intelligence officials say there’s one more key tool to stymie voter manipulation and influence operations: a more aware electorate.

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