Yes, every vote counts. But will your vote be properly counted next week? Or will hackers mess with our election (again?)? Also, voting seems so simple; Bush or Gore, yes or no…why is it so hard to get this right?
These are essential questions, central questions at the heart of our democracy. So for the past couple of months I’ve gotten together with the old Breach podcast team and dug in hard on this issue. The result: We just released an election hacking special. You can listen by hitting play below, or by visiting our iTunes page, our page on Stitcher, or whatever tool you use to get podcasts. It’s 52 minutes. Take one day’s commute before you vote next week to understand why voting in America is under such duress right now.
If you aren’t quite ready to dip into the podcast world yet, I’ll be laying out the issues and publishing portions of the transcript in a 5-part series on my site that starts today. It parallels the podcast, so you can read, listen, or do both.
Alia Tavakolian of Spoke Media is back as co-host, and as always, she cuts through the noise and asks incisive questions straight away.
“So Bob, it’s like our votes can be hacked every single day in our hearts?” she asks me at a key moment.
“The hacking of the American heart. Yeah, I think that that’s true,” I say. “I do think that not only have our votes been hacked and our minds have been hacked, but our hearts have been hacked a bit too.”
Just in case I lose you here, two very important points. First, things are indeed bad, but far from hopeless. Every single expert we talked to — and we talked to dozens — said without hesitation that voting can be fixed, and that democracy is not doomed. Far from it. The podcast ends on a positive, even uplifting note. Which leads to point two: Our greatest security vulnerability is apathy. Yes, even in the face of nation-state hackers. The fewer people who vote, the easier it is to hack our vote. You’ll hear why when you listen, but suffice to say that when numbers are low, it’s easier to manipulate the results. So yes, your vote can make a difference. Stand up to those who would destroy democracy by violating its most fundamental element — the vote — by casting your ballot by next Tuesday. Or sooner, if your jurisdiction allows. Now, our story.
You’ve probably heard that electronic voting machines can be hacked; maybe you’ve even seen one of a number of hacker demonstrations on TV. But that’s only the beginning of a long, complex story. There much more going on here, a whole narrative that’s months or even years long. On Breach, we examine the entire life-cycle of your vote: From the moment you even decide TO vote (or don’t), to who you’ll vote for, to how you’ll vote, to how the votes are tallied and transported, to how that tally is announced, to how much the losers believe the result was legitimate. Technology is involved in every step of the way. So are humans. Both are vulnerable to hacking.
Step 1: Before you vote, and state-sponsored Trolling
Today, we’ll begin with Step 1: Long before you step into the voting both, your vote can be hacked. It’s already happened. I’ve written about state-sponsored trolling before, and I think it might be the greatest threat to democracy, and maybe even intelligence itself.
I sat down with Nick Monaco in D.C., he’s a researcher who studies disinformation and state-sponsored trolling, to understand how our vote can be hacked on social media. But first I needed to know what disinformation actually is.
Sure. I mean, I think we’re all just trying to avoid saying fake news. [Laughs] Academics will make the distinction that disinformation is um, false information that’s knowingly spread. So there’s an intent to deceive people knowingly. Uh, and then they’ll say that misinformation, um, is information that is spread unknowingly that’s false. So maybe you retweet a story that you thought was true, that would be a case of misinformation. But if you create a false story to smear someone that would be disinformation.