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Too bad it took hacks of election systems in Arizona and Illinois to draw needed attention to security problems that computer scientists have been red-flagging for 15 years.
The warnings started with the computer voting response to the 2000 election between former President George W. Bush and Al Gore, in which the presidency literally hung on Florida’s paper ballots. In their haste to switch to electronic machines, jurisdictions ignored the academics.
Undeterred, computer scientists have been hacking machines to expose weaknesses. One group reprogrammed a machine to play the ancient video game Pac-Man. Another used a screwdriver to break into a machine and pull a memory cartridge that could be swapped with one containing bogus information. Others found passwords as simple as 1111, access to universal electronic keys that can be used to break into systems, as well as machines highly vulnerable to malware and viruses.
It’s unknown how far the Illinois and Arizona hackers got or even if they altered data. Security experts say they were probably testing the walls for soft spots to breach in future attacks.
This occurred this summer after hackers associated with the Russian government broke into the Democratic National Committee’s servers. Russian hackers are suspected in the state attacks as well.
Election officials are trying to downplay the threat to bolster faith in the system. They say it’s hard to crash the entire nation because the system is so decentralized. But they fail to acknowledge that an election outcome could be changed by altering returns in a few key precincts in a state or two like Pennsylvania or Ohio.
Even though electronic voting machines are not hooked to the internet, disruptions can occur anywhere along the chain by corrupting records or machine tampering.
Predictably, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told a Russian television station he doubted the government of his idol, Vladamir Putin, would hack this election.
Of course, Trump seems to have his own disruptions in mind. He’s building a voter suppression operation by calling for volunteers to keep Pennsylvanians from voting “four or five times” against him. That’s ridiculous because voter impersonation has virtually been wiped out.
Hacking is the modern threat, but it’s not unbeatable. For better security, most experts recommend voting machines that combine the efficiencies of the new and the reliability of the old. They mean electronic machines that yield paper records. About 35 states, including New Jersey, have moved toward such systems.
Unfortunately, most machines in Pennsylvania don’t yield paper records of each vote. There isn’t enough time or money to update its systems by the November election, so the Department of State is giving county election officials a refresher course on how to secure data. That’s fine for now, but Pennsylvania must consider safer and more reliable systems, not just machines.
As a battleground state in the upcoming national election, and possibly in the next one, Pennsylvania is an obvious target. All the more reason for the state to move quickly to prevent cyberattacks.