A Non-Partisan Cybersecurity Analysis of Election Irregularities

Never Trust, Always Verify

Chris Krebs, the former Director of CISA, was fired on November 17th after repeatedly affirming that the 2020 election was the "most secure in American history."
Already back in July, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reported that low-tech processes like mail-in ballots and the like are the most secure solutions that we currently have. In the event of any irregularities, the existence of a physical trail makes it far easier to audit these systems and ensure that any mistakes are accurately corrected. But were Krebs and CISA ultimately correct in making these claims?

In terms of digital voter fraud, there are two potential options for election tampering available. The fraud could either be committed by internal and/or external actors with the intention of manipulating the results of the election, or the fraud could simply be the result of a systematic software glitch or other accidental cause. Let's walk through each of these in turn.

Option A: Voter tallies were intentionally manipulated by public and/or private actors.

This claim has arisen in several forms, and has been promoted by the president's attorneys, right-wing media outlets, and the president himself. The more radical, yet popular, version of this claim states that a government supercomputer called Hammer or Scorecard was used to change millions of votes from Trump to Biden before they were tallied.

Another widely cited theory by the president and his supporters is that votes were internally manipulated by Dominion Voting, the company that developed the voting software used by many states in the US. For example, a donation made to the Clinton Foundation in 2014 by Dominion is used as evidence that the company is biased and cannot be trusted to run a nonpartisan election.

However, it seems improbable that Dominion or any other external actor could manipulate the actual voter counts, even if they had some sort of incentive to do so. As CISA made clear in a recent statement: "The systems and processes used by election officials to tabulate votes and certify official results are protected by various safeguards that help ensure the accuracy of election results. These safeguards include measures that help ensure tabulation systems function as intended, protect against malicious software, and enable the identification and correction of any irregularities."

Furthermore, each state has its own safeguards and procedures, including testing and certification of voting systems, required auditable logs, and software checks, such as logic and accuracy tests, to ensure ballots are properly counted before election results are made official. It seems near impossible that a single actor or group of actors would be able to falsify a distributed series of records and audits conducted around the country.

Finally, even if digital records could be manipulated, every state retains paper ballots which are then correlated with the digital results. Any malicious actor would then need to go back and edit the paper ballots as well, in order to ensure that both tallies remained identical. As CISA describes it, "voting system software is not a single point of failure and such systems are subject to multiple audits to ensure accuracy and reliability."

This actually occurred in Georgia where a full paper ballot recount took place, with the results matching up exactly with the prior digital count. As Georgian Secretary of State Raffensperger reported, "Georgia's historic first statewide audit reaffirmed that the state's new secure paper ballot voting system accurately counted and reported results."

Option B: A glitch in voting software accidently changed or deleted votes.

On face value, this seems more credible. For example, several Georgia counties have reported finding batches of previously uncounted votes. In addition, some votes in Michigan may have been initially mis-tabulated. As Jonathan Turley pointed out on Fox News, "In Michigan, you had thousands of votes that were given to Biden that belonged to Trump. Now, that doesn't mean it was a nefarious purpose. This is a new software that apparently is vulnerable to human error."

However, as the Fox News host made clear, all of the cases of mis-tabulation or misplaced ballots were due to human error, and all have been corrected. As of the time of writing, there is no evidence that voting software has been accidently (or intentionally) responsible for any miscounted votes, let alone anything substantial enough to sway the results.

As we mentioned in an earlier article, since elections are run on the local (rather than federal) level, any potential glitch would need to compromise numerous unique systems in order to effect substantial damage. The truth is that the vast majority of hackers are not capable of infiltrating secure systems head-on, but are rather forced to rely on opportunistic attacks. These can include outdated software dependencies, poorly configured passwords, and (most often) social engineering. Recent high profile hacks, including state sponsored attempts like those that targeted Tesla and NASA, have mostly relied on low-tech techniques like phishing and insider threats in order to plant malware. The upshot is that although humans will continue to be the weakest link for most organizations, opportunistic attacks will usually be limited to a single network or program, and won't be readily replicable for a more widespread attack. In this sense, our lack of centralized coordination on election infrastructure and procedure may ironically work to our advantage.
Furthermore, just as with intentional manipulation, the preservation of paper ballots makes any digital fraud, even when accidental, easily detectable and reversible.

In conclusion, America's reliance on advanced and distributed election systems which are run by local, rather than federal authorities, makes it extremely unlikely that either an intentional attack or an accidental glitch can significantly alter the results of an election. Furthermore, the existence and preservation of a paper trailer ensures that any mistakes, technical or human, can be audited and recalculated. Finally, the formation of CISA in 2018 has created an amply funded federal agency which provides local election officials with all of the tools, intelligence, and training necessary to conduct the "most secure election in American history."

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