Can 17 American intelligence agencies be wrong? Every single one has delivered factual briefs describing Russian—and others’—attempts to disrupt our elections since 2016.
According to retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, Americans should pay attention. “Foreign enemies continue to see U.S. elections as an opportunity to subvert the will of the American people,” he said in a recent op-ed, “and exert control over our governance at the highest level.”
If bad actors can hack into our nation’s main personnel database (they have) or a highly classified defense program (F-35, yep, that happened, too), you can bet they can get into our elections. And they are.
At least the hackers are bipartisan. The 2016 DNC Russian hacks are well known. But just as recently as October 2019, Iran tried to hack into the Trump campaign. And we all know about the Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian troll farms that build fake social media accounts to jam heated political rhetoric down our throats. I just reported an account posing as one of my high school classmates. I mean, it’s possible that the account is legit, but I just don’t see the super-jock, cheerleader-chasing, living-large friend of the last 35 years suddenly posting a thousand words a day canonizing Bernie Sanders as credible.
But the scariest cyber vulnerability to me is our elections themselves: local election systems nationwide have close to no cybersecurity protections, at least not on the level of nation-sponsored digital sabotage.
You know how it goes in New Mexico: we show up, vaguely verify our identity, get a paper ballot, fill it out, and feed it into a machine reader. Concerns here about voter fraud tend to focus on the front end, where the voter requests a ballot. I still don’t know why showing a picture ID is considered to disenfranchise voters. We do it to buy beer and tobacco. Can’t we give our elections the same level of assurance as a liquor sale?
But voter ID is small stuff when you think about the vulnerability of the back end where ballots are read, recorded and compiled into results. What if our votes are deleted or altered? Fair and free elections are a central to the United States’ identity. Making Americans question the integrity of our elections divides and degrades our democracy.
But we really aren’t doing much about it. Federal grants totaling $3.7 million came to New Mexico in fiscal year 2019 (i.e., 8% less than this year’s state funding for a soccer stadium), and were not renewed in 2020. Meanwhile, the current secretary of state seems hell bent on enacting changes to further erode election integrity on the front end: same day voter registration, for a start.
Admiral Stavridis suggests end-to-end encryption. With end-to-end encryption, data is never accessible on the way to the server or on the server; only the sender and recipient can access the data. He likens it to the difference between wearing an anti-contamination suit while working in an area affected by Ebola, and being vaccinated against it. The protective suit is only a perimeter defense and can be breached many different ways. The vaccine prevents the virus from internal access, no matter where the perimeter is breached.
I happen to have long followed Admiral Stavridis’ writings so am inclined to agree with him. End-to-end encryption is how we protect nuclear codes; it ensures no one administrator holds all the keys to accessing the code data. However, I think implementing end-to-end encryption nationwide in the next eight months is all but impossible.
With a state government wanting to loosen security on the front end of our elections even more, and a federal government disinclined to take steps to tighten security on the back end, 2020 looks a bit bleak. Please do what you can and protect yourself and your data online, and report suspicious actors on social media.
On a side note, I have always wanted an advice column. Many thanks to reader Tom Stuart’s thoughtful letter to the editor last week. I’ll attempt to answer his questions from time to time in this column. This week, I’ll address his question about neighborly etiquette: Should you return drug paraphernalia that gets plowed into your driveway? My take: Absolutely not. This is a coronavirus world now. Call the county hazmat team and duct tape your windows shut.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and one of cat.