So You Want Digital Voting? Hackers Want It Even More
Since Russia (most likely) hacked our Presidential election in 2016, there's been talk of using cell phones for voting. Think again.
Kathleen Fisher is a Professor in and the Chair of the Computer Science Department at Tufts. Previously, she was a program manager at DARPA where she started and managed the HACMS and PPAML programs, a Consulting Faculty Member in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University, and a Principal Member of the Technical Staff at AT&T Labs Research. Kathleen's research focuses on advancing the theory and practice of programming languages and on applying ideas from the programming language community to the problem of ad hoc data management. The main thrust of her work has been in domain-specific languages to facilitate programming with massive amounts of ad hoc data. Recently, she has been exploring synergies between machine learning and programming languages and studying how to apply advances in programming languages to the problem of building more secure systems.
Kathleen is an ACM Fellow. She has served as Program Chair for OOPSLA ICFP, CUFP, and FOOL, and as General Chair for ICFP 2015. She is an Associate Editor for TOPLAS and a former editor of the Journal of Functional Programming. Kathleen is a past Chair of the ACM Special Interest Group in Programming Languages (SIGPLAN) and past Co-Chair of CRA's Committee on the Status of Women (CRA-W). Kathleen is a recipient of the SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award. She is Vice Chair of DARPA's ISAT Study Group and a member of the Board of Trustees of Harvey Mudd College.
Kathleen Fisher: One of the reasons why computer security is so hard is because you have to get absolutely everything right in order to have a secure system. And there’s lots of different kinds of things you can get wrong. Everything from your software was buggy, your passwords were too weak, you published your passwords accidentally, your hardware was insecure, the user made a mistake and fell victim to a phishing attack and gave their credentials to a foreign agent or a bad guy. All of those things have to be done correctly in order to have a secure system.
It might seem tempting to think, you know, everybody has a cell phone so you could just use your cell phone to do voting like we do for American Idol or similar TV shows. It works for American Idol because nobody cares all that much who wins or doesn’t win.
If you get the wrong outcome some people will care, but it won’t affect sort of the future of the country, for example. It’s not sensible to use cell phones for voting for things that matter, national elections for example, because the software on a phone is enormous and very complicated, and so understanding that that code is correct and actually counting all of the votes appropriately would be a task that would be so complex as to be infeasible to do.
You could have the legitimate app that is designed to correctly count the votes for an election, but somebody could hack into that set of applications and plant bugs in a bunch of different cell phones so that the final results were not the actual intent, it didn’t actually capture the intent of all the voters.
So a system for voting that relies entirely on computers to do all of the voting will never be secure, because you’ll never have enough confidence that the code that was running on those computers correctly counted the votes as the person who voted intended. There’s always the chance that there were bugs or that a hacker came and changed the code or corrupted the code to make the result be what the hacker wanted instead of what the voters wanted.
So one of the things to know about how the U.S. election system works is that voting machines are the perview of states. So every state has their own process for deciding how what technology to use to count votes. And so it’s not, there’s not a monoculture where every single voting site has the same technology. It’s determined on the state-by-state basis.
So you have 50 different state authorities—at least —who are deciding what technology to use for that particular state, and there are different technologies in play. One of the technologies is just a touch screen where you go and you tap the choices that you want and it records it in a computer program. Ten states currently have that kind of technology, and from a cybersecurity perspective that technology is terrible, because what computers do is exactly what they’re told to do by the last person who loaded code onto the system.
I think people who don’t know very much about computers tend to think that computers do the “right thing.” But in fact they just do exactly what their told to do. So if they’re told to do the correct thing by a person who has the authority to tell them, then that’s great. But that’s often not what happens. The voting systems that just have the touch screen, there’s no way of auditing what happened retroactively. It’s just a question of “did the system actually count it correctly?” You don’t know. All you have at the end of the day is the collection of totals. So somebody could have replaced the code, hacked in and made it count in a slightly skewed way, in a very skewed way—You really have no way of telling. So that technology is bad. People pretty much know that technology is bad and it’s being phased out. So no one is trying to buy more of these machines at this point and they’re no longer being manufactured. So we’re trending in a good direction as far as that’s concerned.
A different kind of machine are the optical scanning machines where you fill out – it’s kind of like a Scantron form from elementary school where you fill out the multiple choice questions on the form and then the form is read electronically. And now the program that’s doing the reading has all the problems of the system that I talked about before where it is software that’s scanning and counting and could be buggy, could be corrupted by somebody who’s hacking in.
But you still have that paper record, so you can go back after the fact and audit to confirm that the report, that the total that was reported was actually correct and so that post facto auditing capability is really important. Most states use this technology now. Some states have in place an automatic auditing process, so independent of whether any candidate asks for an audit they go and pick some number of the voting districts and some number of the ballots and they check to make sure that the counting process was correct. I think probably the level of auditing isn’t sufficient. There needs to be broader auditing and more random auditing going on, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
The principle of the people who work in this area talk about is they want to make sure that they can guarantee the results are correct even if a nefarious person wrote the code that did the counting. So it has to work even if the software was completely buggy. And this optical scanning reading technology satisfies that characteristic.
Because even if the code that does the counting of the Scantron form is buggy they can go look at the physical forms and figure out that there was a mistake and correct it using different software.
So there’s an audibility capability that exists in that kind of technology that doesn’t exist if you have no paper trail. So I think at this point we kind of know how to do it from a technical point of view and the question is getting the states all to shift to that new kind of technology.
Since Russia (most likely) hacked our Presidential election in 2016, there's been talk of using cell phones for voting. That's not a good idea, says security expert Kathleen Fisher. Almost all available electronic methods are in some way able to be hacked: either the machine themselves or the program counting the votes at the end. It's quite a vicious conundrum that is leaving leaders in D.C. and Silicon Valley scratching their heads. Is the good ol' paper ballot our best option? It just might be.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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