J ack Cable sat down at the desk in his cramped dorm room to become an adult in the eyes of democracy. The rangy teenager, with neatly manicured brown hair and chunky glasses, had recently arrived at Stanford—his first semester of life away from home—and the midterm elections were less than two months away.
But before he could cast an absentee ballot, he needed to register with the Board of Elections back home in Chicago. When Cable tried to complete the digital forms, an error message stared at him from his browser. Clicking back to his initial entry, he realized that he had accidentally typed an extraneous quotation mark into his home address. The fact that a single keystroke had short-circuited his registration filled Cable with a sense of dread.
Cable, who is preternaturally persistent, had a knack for finding these soft spots. He collected enough cash prizes from the bug bounties to cover the costs of four years at Stanford.
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Despite his technical savvy, Cable was at a loss for how to alert the authorities. He began sending urgent warnings about the problem to every official address he could find. He read about how, inwhen he was a junior in high school, Russian military intelligence—known by its initials, GRU— had hacked the Illinois State Board of Elections websitetransferring the personal data of tens of thousands of voters to Moscow.
The GRU had even tunneled into the computers of a small Florida company that sold software to election officials in eight states.
Out of curiosity, Cable checked to see what his home state had done to protect itself in the years since. Within 15 minutes of poking around the Board of Elections website, he discovered that its old weaknesses had not been fully repaired.
These were the most basic lapses in cybersecurity—preventable with code learned in an introductory computer-science class—and they remained even though similar gaps had been identified by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, not to mention widely reported in the media. The Russians could have strolled through the same door as they had in Between classes, Cable began running tests on the rest of the national electoral infrastructure.
He found that some states now had formidable defenses, but many others were like Illinois. If a teenager in a dorm room—even an exceptionally talented one—could find these vulnerabilities, they were not going to be missed by a disciplined unit of hackers that has spent years studying these networks, a unit with the resources of a powerful nation bent on discrediting an American election. DemocracyRIP was both the hashtag and the plan. The Russians were expecting the election of Hillary Clinton—and preparing to immediately declare it a fraud.
The embassy in Washington had attempted to persuade American officials to allow its functionaries to act as observers in polling places.
A Twitter campaign alleging voting irregularities was queued. Russian diplomats were ready to publicly denounce the as illegitimate.
Events inof course, veered in the other direction. Yet the hashtag is worth pausing over for a moment, because, though it was never put to its intended use, it remains an apt title for a mission that is still unfolding.
But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it. Hackers continued attempting to break into state voting systems; trolls continued to launch social-media campaigns intended to spark racial conflict.
While the Russians continued their efforts to undermine American democracy, the United States belatedly began to devise a response. Across government—if not at the top of it—there was a panicked sense that American democracy required new layers of defense. Senators drafted legislation with grandiose titles; bureaucrats unfurled the blueprints for new units and divisions; law enforcement ased bodies to dedicated task forces.
Yet many of the warnings have gone unheeded, and what fortifications have been built appear inadequate. Check out the full table of contents and find your next story to read. Jack Cable is a small emblem of how the U. He is part of a team of competitive hackers at Stanford—national champions three years running—that caught the attention of Alex Stamos, a former head of security at Facebook, who now teaches at the university.
Earlier this year, Stamos asked the Department of Homeland Security if he could pull together a group of undergraduates, Cable included, to lend Washington a hand in the search for bugs. Our politics are even more raw and fractured than in ; our faith in government—and, perhaps, democracy itself—is further strained.
The coronavirus may meaningfully exacerbate these problems; at a minimum, the pandemic is leeching attention and resources from election defense. The president, meanwhile, has dismissed Russian interference as a hoax and fired or threatened intelligence officials who have contradicted that narrative, all while professing his affinity for the very man who ordered this assault on American democracy. David Frum: Trump has lost the plot. The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them.
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Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, they are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork. Having hacked into the inboxes of political operatives in the U.
When officials arrived at work on the morning of May 22,three days before a presidential election, they discovered that their hard drives were fried. Relying on a backup system, the Ukrainians were able to resuscitate their network. But on election night the attacks persisted.
The graphic purported to show that a right-wing nationalist had sprinted to the lead in the presidential race.
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The U. With only interpreters present, Obama delivered a carefully worded admonition not to mess with the integrity of the election. From the March issue: Franklin Foer on how Vladimir Putin became the hero of nationalists everywhere. Perhaps the warning was heeded. What sort of operation could Russia execute in ?
Instead, the United States has an array of smaller but still alluring targets: the vendors, niche companies, that sell voting equipment to states and localities; the employees of those governments, each with passwords that can be stolen; voting machines that connect to the internet to transmit election .
I asked Masterson to describe the scenarios that keep him up at night. His greatest fear is that an election official might inadvertently enable a piece of ransomware. These are malicious bits of code that encrypt data and files, essentially placing a lock on a system; money is then demanded in exchange for the key. InUkraine was targeted again, this time with a similar piece of malware called NotPetya. But instead of extorting Ukraine, Russia sought to cripple it. But Russia need not risk such a devastating attack. It can simply meddle with voter-registration databases, which are filled with vulnerabilities similar to the ones that Cable exposed.
When people arrived at the polls, they would likely still be able to vote, but might be forced to cast provisional ballots. The confusion and additional paperwork would generate long lines and stoke suspicion about the underlying integrity of the election.
Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote. On Election Night, the Russians could place a on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead.
Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax.
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Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion. Such scenarios ought to have sparked a clamor for systemic reform. But in the past, when the federal government has pointed out these vulnerabilities—and attempted to protect against them—the states have chafed and moaned. After the election, the federal government could have taken a stronger hand with localities.
Unprecedented acts of foreign interference presumably would have provided quite a bit of leverage. That did not happen. The president perceives any suggestion of Russian interference as the diminution of his own legitimacy. This has contributed to a conspiracy of silence about the events of A year after the election, the Department of Homeland Security told 21 states that Russia had attempted to hack their electoral systems. Two years later, a Senate report publicly disclosed that Russia had, in fact, targeted all 50 states. From the April issue: William J.
Burns on how the U. This atmosphere stifled what could have been a genuinely bipartisan accomplishment. The subject of voting divides Republicans and Democrats.
Especially since the Bush v. Gore decision inthe parties have stitched voting into their master narratives. Democrats accuse Republicans of suppressing the vote; Republicans accuse Democrats of flooding the polls with corpses and other cheating schemes. Despite this rancor, both sides seemed to agree that Russian hacking of voting systems was not a good thing. The bill would have given the states money to replace electronic voting machines with ones that leave a paper trail and would have required states to audit election to confirm their accuracy.
The reforms would also have had the seemingly salutary effect of making it easier for voters to cast ballots. Then, on the eve of a session to mark up the legislation—a moment for lawmakers to add their final touches—Senate Republicans suddenly withdrew their support, effectively killing the bill. But I wanted his help tabulating a more precise toll of Russian hacking—how it leaves a messy trail of hurt feelings, saps precious mental space, and reshapes the course of a campaign. Dressed in a plaid shirt, with a ballpoint pen clipped into the pocket, Podesta rocked back and forth in a swivel chair as he allowed me to question him about one of the most wince-inducing moments in recent political history.
Months before WikiLeaks began publishing his s, Podesta had an inkling that his Gmail had been compromised.