Sunday, 18 December 2016

Hacking the U.S. Election

A shorter version of the following article was published in the Edmonton Journal on Saturday November 26, 2016. Several other media outlets also picked up the article.


At the heart of the principle of democracy is the election process. If the integrity of that process is in question, then every citizen who values freedom must be concerned.

On Wednesday [November 23, 2016], New York Magazine came out with a report that “Hillary Clinton is being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump.” The report stated that, “The group… believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” In other words, precisely what Donald Trump repeatedly stated during the run-up to November 8: “This election is rigged.”

As a Canadian, I have no say in who the United States chooses to lead their country. But as someone who looks to the United States as the flag-bearer for democracy around the world, this report raises alarm bells. Nothing has been proven, but I believe the allegations must be taken seriously.

The issue at hand is the credibility of electronic voting. According to New York Magazine, there is data to show that, “in Wisconsin, Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.” The three states in question represent the margin between having President-elect Trump or President-elect Clinton.

There are two parts to this investigation, both of which hinge on understanding the principles of mathematics and computer science. First, is there data to suggest that something is amiss? Nothing has yet been revealed by the scientists, other than through the news media. Without seeing the data, it is impossible to pass judgement. However, the source is J. Alex Halderman, a Professor of Computer Science and the director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security and Society. Dr. Halderman has an impressive track record and established credibility.

Here is a simple way of thinking about the claim being made (pardon my mathematical imprecision). Pretend you have two coins and you flip each of them 100 times. Assuming that the coins have no imperfections, you would expect each coin to get around 50 heads and 50 tails. The first coin yields the expected result, 50-50. But flipping the second coin results in 55 heads and 45 tails. This result is possible, but mathematically the chances are small (roughly 1 in 20). What if now you flip the second coin 1000 times and get 550 heads? This is still the same percentage of heads, but now the chances of this occurring drop to around 1 in 6000. With virtual certainty something is amiss.

Loosely speaking, the above analogy describes what is being alleged. Data from one set of counties, those that did not use the voting machines, matches expectations (possibly even matching exit polling results). Data from the set of counties using voting machines does not. We have not yet seen the data analysis from the scientists to support their claims, but if the New York Magazine report is accurate, then there is an anomaly that must be investigated. It is not something that one can write off as an everyday possibility. It is like asking the question “What are my chances of winning a big lottery prize today?” Possible, but unlikely to say the least.

The second part of the investigation is proof. If something untoward has happened, can it be proven? Sadly, this may be difficult to do. The electronic voting machines are run by computer software. They could have been programmed to ignore some votes, something small enough that it might escape attention. That should be easy to prove: just examine the machine’s software. That won’t necessarily reveal anything, as clever hackers often leave no trace of what they have done. The program code would be simple: “Wait until November 8, 2016. On that date ignore every 10th vote for the Democrats. At 6AM on November 9, 2016 erase this code.” Malicious programs do precisely this to cover their tracks.

If the software shows no sign of tampering, can you prove that somehow malicious software was put on the machines? Maybe. It depends on many factors, including the machine, the hardware/software safeguards built into it, whether it was connected to a network, and who might have had access to it. At one extreme, if all the electronic voting machines were connected to the Internet, a hacker might be able to break into the machines and download a “special” version of the software. At the other extreme, none of the machines are connected to the network, and someone had to go to each machine individually and put new software on it. Showing that someone could access the machine without permission would be cause for concern, but still does not prove that the vote counts are wrong.

There is another way that you can prove that the machines were flawed. It may be that some counties that used electronic voting machines have an independent record of the voting. For example, what if it was discovered that these counties averaged 1,000 people casting votes (as recorded at the polling station) but the machine only registered 900 actual votes? If there is independent consistent evidence such as this, it will be compelling proof that the results are flawed. Of course, even this would not tell us who was responsible or who was the legitimate winner of the election.

Where does this leave us? The evidence for voting irregularities must be made public and assessed. If there is cause for concern, then an investigation must be launched. There may be no physical evidence to support the contention that the voting machines were compromised. What do you do, however, if you can prove that the voting pattern recorded by these machines was so unusual that the result had only a one-in-one-thousand chance of occurring? Does that constitute reasonable doubt in the legal sense? Does that meet the bar for casting doubt on the result of the U.S. election?

The U.S. election was a bitter contest, perhaps the most partisan election in that nation’s history. Now a credible source may have data to suggest there are widespread voting anomalies. Every American citizen – Republicans and Democrats – must be very concerned and insist on a thorough bipartisan investigation. Going forward, the United States must put in place a process that allows all methods of vote counting to be audited. As a Canadian, it is important to me that the American election result is above reproach. Anything less than that is an affront to democracy. Canada and the world are watching.