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Talkin' Tech: Election technology; Pitfalls and triumphs explained
by Martie Marro for Windy City Times

This article shared 2577 times since Tue Oct 27, 2020
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It is election season 2020 and a lot of false information is circling the recent news (and fake news) regarding your vote. The 2016 elections showed a lot of technology pitfalls when it came to foreign interference, especially on social-media, so this explanation will start there.

Social media platforms were by and large set up for anonymous posting, beginning in 2008. Since then, only if someone is exclusively friends with or following people they know and trust, and have met in person, members of Twitter and Facebook are subject to occasionally reading a post from someone they don't know who could live anywhere in the world.

Anonymous posting is especially true for social-media groups, where someone truly doesn't know many members in the group. "Trolls" is a common phrase used to describe anonymous posters that infiltrate a group to post ideas that are typically the opposite of others' beliefs or the group's beliefs to stir up trouble or doubt.

More insidious are the trolls that intend to strengthen others' beliefs in something untrue and completely false. A good example of that scenario was a conspiracy theory called "Pizza-Gate," a lie about a Hillary Clinton-run pedophile ring located in the basement of a pizza joint called Comet in Washington, D.C.

In March, during the 2016 election year, the email account of Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, was hacked by faking a message from the mail server host, intentionally giving him a false email link to reset his password. Conspiracy theorists of the Pizza-Gate confabulation falsely claimed the emails contained coded messages regarding high-ranking D.C. officials, specifically Democrats, and their involvement with this made-up pedophile ring. These lies were spread mainly through conspiracy websites and Twitter using fake accounts.

After a gunman showed up at the pizza place and fired a rifle inside the restaurant, the conspiracy theories were widely disputed by mainstream media, and Edgar Welch, the gunman, was placed under arrest. Unfortunately, many Americans still believe this false story to be true, due to the power of social media. Other foreign interests, including Russia, have been detected by the FBI, trolling white nationalists groups and feeding into the anger and falsehoods professed by these groups.

The FBI recently compiled a 2020 election interference report. The existence of this report, published at the end of August 2020, became public knowledge on Sept. 22 in articles by The Washington Post and The New York Times. U.S. officials have accused Russia, China and Iran of trying to influence the 2020 elections.

Emails that were sent to Democrats, which appeared to come from the white nationalist group the "Proud Boys," threatened Democrats, saying they had to vote for Trump, or else. It was later proven these emails came from a mail server in Iran. The FBI report did not specify that the Proud Boys were responsible for hacking the Iranian mail server, the report indiscriminately blamed Iran.

Social media and email aside, U.S. elections involve technology in multiple ways. At most polling places across America, many of the voting machines are electronic touch screens. These electronic machines have made voting easier for many people, and produce far less errors (ie: no hanging chads). There will always be a question about who manufactures the machines and which companies maintain them, but every county has an election board that combs over these details carefully.

Social media rumors include one that China granted trademarks for multiple products, potentially including voting machines, under Ivanka Trump's eponymous brand in late 2018. While Snopes alleges this to be true, it also stated it was highly unlikely those machines would ever be used in the United States.

The real pitfall of American voting falls into an IT phenomenon known as Packet-Sniffing. It's where packets of data are read by software or scripts on the internet with the sole intention of violating privacy. Think of it like Package-Sniffing for this very basic explanation. Suppose someone sits outside of the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 East Washington Street and sniffs every "package" as they go by. This is a highly congested pedestrian area. For every package they like the smell of, they slyly put a penny in the pocket of that pedestrian with the pleasant-smelling package.

At the end of the day how much will they have changed the wealth of the pedestrians in the area? Who Knows? Like Package-Sniffing, Packet-Sniffing is highly untrackable. It is a packet of data travelling from one place to another. Polling places are typically in grammar schools, high schools, and government buildings, including the Chicago Cultural Center. Some of these locations have little to no security protocols in place. Each of these polling places periodically send packets of data to the precincts that include vote totals. These packets of data are ideally encrypted on their way to the precinct to be counted.

However, grammar schools are the least likely to have an encryption setup, as their network passwords have to be easy enough for grade schoolers to remember. In 2020 it was reported that 25% of all hacked computers in the U.S. resided at schools, another 25% were government desktops. Education Weekly writes: "The reality is that many school districts are still struggling to protect their own networks from students, [and are] oblivious to outside threats."

Data travels underground in pipes full of cables and fiber optics. For the most part, these pipes are public and any script or software can "virtually" sit down there and wait for packets to go by, with specific information in them.

According to the Chicago Election Board, located a few blocks from the Chicago Cultural Center, an election-day polling place, vote tabulation results are transmitted electronically to the central counting station. Concerningly, the Board of Elections website does not state these tabulations are encrypted. Lists of all the polling places across America are publically accessible. Precinct headquarter addresses might be information slightly less accessible.

In conclusion, alternate to what President Trump professes at his rallies, mail-in voting is the method of voting available that is least subjected to electronic manipulation.

In the distant future voting may be strictly online, like many countries. Voting online will be a triumph if done correctly, with security in the forethought of all those potential developers. Without above-the-ordinary encryption, the results will be useless. If Amazon or Google is capable of extreme encryption and ultra-sensitive security protocols, any server can be.

Just as with many government computers that have weak passwords and no security protocols, many computer systems are currently not up to the test.

This article shared 2577 times since Tue Oct 27, 2020
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