Hack the vote: terrifying film shows how vulnerable US elections are

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    Even as much of America grinds to a halt, coronavirus has yet to derail the date of the 2020 election. Which introduces a perhaps underestimated terror, as explained in one of the more deceptively scary documentaries to drop in recent weeks: the vulnerable voting machine. That seemingly benign piece of equipment – the hardware of American democracy – is, as several experts explain in HBO’s Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, nothing more than an obsolete computer. And these machines’ vulnerabilities to hacking are “terrifying”, Sarah Teale, co-director along with Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels, told the Guardian. America’s current election infrastructure is, as Kill Chain explains, a prescription for disaster – an outdated, willfully naive system no more prepared for attack than four years ago.

    Like After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, another HBO documentary which premiered last week and focused on the threat of disinformation on American democracy, Kill Chain re-examines foreign interference in the 2016 election with critical and scientific distance. The film follows the liabilities of the American democratic system even further than fake news, to its basic infrastructure: the machines in poll booths across the country, the very method through which votes are tallied, the databases in which voter data – name, address, eligibility – are stored.

    The process of voting in the United States is idiosyncratic and often chaotic, but no matter how each polling station is managed, the vast majority rely on electronic machines produced by three companies with removable hardware such as USB flash drives or memory cards. Individual incidences of alleged voting malpractice – for example, the purge of 340,000 voters, mostly people of color, from the Georgia rolls in 2018 – are thus part of a pattern of election vulnerabilities across the country known in cyberwarfare as a kill chain, as the voting security expert and veteran hacker Harri Hursti explains in the film. Most Americans vaguely know of Russian interference in 2016, but Kill Chain offers forensics on specific events in this pattern: the scanning and examining of state election registration databases; the hacking of the Election Assistance Commission, in which an unknown Russian actor accessed and sold information from a federal database on election technology throughout the country. Teale interviews a young man in India known online as “Cyberzeist”, who hacked into an Alaskan election website in 2016 and claimed to be able to alter votes and voter data.

    Hursti, who is originally from Finland, has been studying weaknesses in the American election system for more than 15 years. He first appeared on HBO in 2006, in Teale’s documentary Hacking Democracy; in a clip replayed in Kill Chain, a young and somewhat smug Hursti shocks the supervisor of elections in Leon county, Florida, when he easily hacks the county’s Diebold voting machine with just a tampered memory card. Hursti realized then that “this is way worse than I would’ve ever believed”, he told the Guardian. But 15 years later, little has changed; the Diebold machines are still in use in 20 states. “If somebody would try to explain to me everything I have seen and experienced and learned myself, I wouldn’t believe it,” Hursti said, characterizing America’s election infrastructure as “ridiculously broken”.


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