Entries Tagged "national security policy"

Page 2 of 55

Chinese Supply-Chain Attack on Computer Systems

Bloomberg News has a major story about the Chinese hacking computer motherboards made by Supermicro, Levono, and others. It’s been going on since at least 2008. The US government has known about it for almost as long, and has tried to keep the attack secret:

China’s exploitation of products made by Supermicro, as the U.S. company is known, has been under federal scrutiny for much of the past decade, according to 14 former law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the matter. That included an FBI counterintelligence investigation that began around 2012, when agents started monitoring the communications of a small group of Supermicro workers, using warrants obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to five of the officials.

There’s lots of detail in the article, and I recommend that you read it through.

This is a follow on, with a lot more detail, to a story Bloomberg reported on in fall 2018. I didn’t believe the story back then, writing:

I don’t think it’s real. Yes, it’s plausible. But first of all, if someone actually surreptitiously put malicious chips onto motherboards en masse, we would have seen a photo of the alleged chip already. And second, there are easier, more effective, and less obvious ways of adding backdoors to networking equipment.

I seem to have been wrong. From the current Bloomberg story:

Mike Quinn, a cybersecurity executive who served in senior roles at Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., said he was briefed about added chips on Supermicro motherboards by officials from the U.S. Air Force. Quinn was working for a company that was a potential bidder for Air Force contracts, and the officials wanted to ensure that any work would not include Supermicro equipment, he said. Bloomberg agreed not to specify when Quinn received the briefing or identify the company he was working for at the time.

“This wasn’t a case of a guy stealing a board and soldering a chip on in his hotel room; it was architected onto the final device,” Quinn said, recalling details provided by Air Force officials. The chip “was blended into the trace on a multilayered board,” he said.

“The attackers knew how that board was designed so it would pass” quality assurance tests, Quinn said.

Supply-chain attacks are the flavor of the moment, it seems. But they’re serious, and very hard to defend against in our deeply international IT industry. (I have repeatedly called this an “insurmountable problem.”) Here’s me in 2018:

Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn’t an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can’t trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government.

We need some fundamental security research here. I wrote this in 2019:

The other solution is to build a secure system, even though any of its parts can be subverted. This is what the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon meant in April when she said about 5G, “You have to presume a dirty network.” Or more precisely, can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the Internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

It seems that supply-chain attacks are constantly in the news right now. That’s good. They’ve been a serious problem for a long time, and we need to take the threat seriously. For further reading, I strongly recommend this Atlantic Council report from last summer: “Breaking trust: Shades of crisis across an insecure software supply chain.

Posted on February 13, 2021 at 9:41 AMView Comments

Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons

President Biden wants his Peloton in the White House. For those who have missed the hype, it’s an Internet-connected stationary bicycle. It has a screen, a camera, and a microphone. You can take live classes online, work out with your friends, or join the exercise social network. And all of that is a security risk, especially if you are the president of the United States.

Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the NSA to help him handle them.

Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.

US presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features. In 2010, President Barack Obama complained that his presidential BlackBerry device was “no fun” because only ten people were allowed to contact him on it. In 2013, security prevented him from getting an iPhone. When he finally got an upgrade to his BlackBerry in 2016, he complained that his new “secure” phone couldn’t take pictures, send texts, or play music. His “hardened” iPad to read daily intelligence briefings was presumably similarly handicapped. We don’t know what the NSA did to these devices, but they certainly modified the software and physically removed the cameras and microphones — and possibly the wireless Internet connection.

President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.

The risks are serious. We know that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on Trump’s phones. Hackers can remotely turn on microphones and cameras, listening in on conversations. They can grab copies of any documents on the device. They can also use those devices to further infiltrate government networks, maybe even jumping onto classified networks that the devices connect to. If the devices have physical capabilities, those can be hacked as well. In 2007, the wireless features of Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s pacemaker were disabled out of fears that it could be hacked to assassinate him. In 1999, the NSA banned Furbies from its offices, mistakenly believing that they could listen and learn.

Physically removing features and components works, but the results are increasingly unacceptable. The NSA could take Biden’s Peloton and rip out the camera, microphone, and Internet connection, and that would make it secure — but then it would just be a normal (albeit expensive) stationary bike. Maybe Biden wouldn’t accept that, and he’d demand that the NSA do even more work to customize and secure the Peloton part of the bicycle. Maybe Biden’s security agents could isolate his Peloton in a specially shielded room where it couldn’t infect other computers, and warn him not to discuss national security in its presence.

This might work, but it certainly doesn’t scale. As president, Biden can direct substantial resources to solving his cybersecurity problems. The real issue is what everyone else should do. The president of the United States is a singular espionage target, but so are members of his staff and other administration officials.

Members of Congress are targets, as are governors and mayors, police officers and judges, CEOs and directors of human rights organizations, nuclear power plant operators, and election officials. All of these people have smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Many have Internet-connected cars and appliances, vacuums, bikes, and doorbells. Every one of those devices is a potential security risk, and all of those people are potential national security targets. But none of those people will get their Internet-connected devices customized by the NSA.

That is the real cybersecurity issue. Internet connectivity brings with it features we like. In our cars, it means real-time navigation, entertainment options, automatic diagnostics, and more. In a Peloton, it means everything that makes it more than a stationary bike. In a pacemaker, it means continuous monitoring by your doctor — and possibly your life saved as a result. In an iPhone or iPad, it means…well, everything. We can search for older, non-networked versions of some of these devices, or the NSA can disable connectivity for the privileged few of us. But the result is the same: in Obama’s words, “no fun.”

And unconnected options are increasingly hard to find. In 2016, I tried to find a new car that didn’t come with Internet connectivity, but I had to give up: there were no options to omit that in the class of car I wanted. Similarly, it’s getting harder to find major appliances without a wireless connection. As the price of connectivity continues to drop, more and more things will only be available Internet-enabled.

Internet security is national security — not because the president is personally vulnerable but because we are all part of a single network. Depending on who we are and what we do, we will make different trade-offs between security and fun. But we all deserve better options.

Regulations that force manufacturers to provide better security for all of us are the only way to do that. We need minimum security standards for computers of all kinds. We need transparency laws that give all of us, from the president on down, sufficient information to make our own security trade-offs. And we need liability laws that hold companies liable when they misrepresent the security of their products and services.

I’m not worried about Biden. He and his staff will figure out how to balance his exercise needs with the national security needs of the country. Sometimes the solutions are weirdly customized, such as the anti-eavesdropping tent that Obama used while traveling. I am much more worried about the political activists, journalists, human rights workers, and oppressed minorities around the world who don’t have the money or expertise to secure their technology, or the information that would give them the ability to make informed decisions on which technologies to choose.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on February 5, 2021 at 5:58 AMView Comments

Georgia’s Ballot-Marking Devices

Andrew Appel discusses Georgia’s voting machines, how the paper ballots facilitated a recount, and the problem with automatic ballot-marking devices:

Suppose the polling-place optical scanners had been hacked (enough to change the outcome). Then this would have been detected in the audit, and (in principle) Georgia would have been able to recover by doing a full recount. That’s what we mean when we say optical-scan voting machines have “strong software independence”­you can obtain a trustworthy result even if you’re not sure about the software in the machine on election day.

If Georgia had still been using the paperless touchscreen DRE voting machines that they used from 2003 to 2019, then there would have been no paper ballots to recount, and no way to disprove the allegations that the election was hacked. That would have been a nightmare scenario. I’ll bet that Secretary of State Raffensperger now appreciates why the Federal Court forced him to stop using those DRE machines (Curling v. Raffensperger, Case 1:17-cv-02989-AT Document 579).

I have long advocated voter-verifiable paper ballots, and this is an example of why.

Posted on February 1, 2021 at 10:09 AMView Comments

Russia’s SolarWinds Attack and Software Security

The information that is emerging about Russia’s extensive cyberintelligence operation against the United States and other countries should be increasingly alarming to the public. The magnitude of the hacking, now believed to have affected more than 250 federal agencies and businesses — ­primarily through a malicious update of the SolarWinds network management software — ­may have slipped under most people’s radar during the holiday season, but its implications are stunning.

According to a Washington Post report, this is a massive intelligence coup by Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR). And a massive security failure on the part of the United States is also to blame. Our insecure Internet infrastructure has become a critical national security risk­ — one that we need to take seriously and spend money to reduce.

President-elect Joe Biden’s initial response spoke of retaliation, but there really isn’t much the United States can do beyond what it already does. Cyberespionage is business as usual among countries and governments, and the United States is aggressively offensive in this regard. We benefit from the lack of norms in this area and are unlikely to push back too hard because we don’t want to limit our own offensive actions.

Biden took a more realistic tone last week when he spoke of the need to improve US defenses. The initial focus will likely be on how to clean the hackers out of our networks, why the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command failed to detect this intrusion and whether the 2-year-old Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has the resources necessary to defend the United States against attacks of this caliber. These are important discussions to have, but we also need to address the economic incentives that led to SolarWinds being breached and how that insecure software ended up in so many critical US government networks.

Software has become incredibly complicated. Most of us almost don’t know all of the software running on our laptops and what it’s doing. We don’t know where it’s connecting to on the Internet­ — not even which countries it’s connecting to­ — and what data it’s sending. We typically don’t know what third party libraries are in the software we install. We don’t know what software any of our cloud services are running. And we’re rarely alone in our ignorance. Finding all of this out is incredibly difficult.

This is even more true for software that runs our large government networks, or even the Internet backbone. Government software comes from large companies, small suppliers, open source projects and everything in between. Obscure software packages can have hidden vulnerabilities that affect the security of these networks, and sometimes the entire Internet. Russia’s SVR leveraged one of those vulnerabilities when it gained access to SolarWinds’ update server, tricking thousands of customers into downloading a malicious software update that gave the Russians access to those networks.

The fundamental problem is one of economic incentives. The market rewards quick development of products. It rewards new features. It rewards spying on customers and users: collecting and selling individual data. The market does not reward security, safety or transparency. It doesn’t reward reliability past a bare minimum, and it doesn’t reward resilience at all.

This is what happened at SolarWinds. A New York Times report noted the company ignored basic security practices. It moved software development to Eastern Europe, where Russia has more influence and could potentially subvert programmers, because it’s cheaper.

Short-term profit was seemingly prioritized over product security.

Companies have the right to make decisions like this. The real question is why the US government bought such shoddy software for its critical networks. This is a problem that Biden can fix, and he needs to do so immediately.

The United States needs to improve government software procurement. Software is now critical to national security. Any system for acquiring software needs to evaluate the security of the software and the security practices of the company, in detail, to ensure they are sufficient to meet the security needs of the network they’re being installed in. Procurement contracts need to include security controls of the software development process. They need security attestations on the part of the vendors, with substantial penalties for misrepresentation or failure to comply. The government needs detailed best practices for government and other companies.

Some of the groundwork for an approach like this has already been laid by the federal government, which has sponsored the development of a “Software Bill of Materials” that would set out a process for software makers to identify the components used to assemble their software.

This scrutiny can’t end with purchase. These security requirements need to be monitored throughout the software’s life cycle, along with what software is being used in government networks.

None of this is cheap, and we should be prepared to pay substantially more for secure software. But there’s a benefit to these practices. If the government evaluations are public, along with the list of companies that meet them, all network buyers can benefit from them. The US government acting purely in the realm of procurement can improve the security of nongovernmental networks worldwide.

This is important, but it isn’t enough. We need to set minimum safety and security standards for all software: from the code in that Internet of Things appliance you just bought to the code running our critical national infrastructure. It’s all one network, and a vulnerability in your refrigerator’s software can be used to attack the national power grid.

The IOT Cybersecurity Improvement Act, signed into law last month, is a start in this direction.

The Biden administration should prioritize minimum security standards for all software sold in the United States, not just to the government but to everyone. Long gone are the days when we can let the software industry decide how much emphasis to place on security. Software security is now a matter of personal safety: whether it’s ensuring your car isn’t hacked over the Internet or that the national power grid isn’t hacked by the Russians.

This regulation is the only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers — just as legislation was necessary to mandate food safety measures and require auto manufacturers to install life-saving features such as seat belts and air bags. Smart regulations that incentivize innovation create a market for security features. And they improve security for everyone.

It’s true that creating software in this sort of regulatory environment is more expensive. But if we truly value our personal and national security, we need to be prepared to pay for it.

The truth is that we’re already paying for it. Today, software companies increase their profits by secretly pushing risk onto their customers. We pay the cost of insecure personal computers, just as the government is now paying the cost to clean up after the SolarWinds hack. Fixing this requires both transparency and regulation. And while the industry will resist both, they are essential for national security in our increasingly computer-dependent worlds.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on January 8, 2021 at 6:27 AMView Comments

More on the SolarWinds Breach

The New York Times has more details.

About 18,000 private and government users downloaded a Russian tainted software update –­ a Trojan horse of sorts ­– that gave its hackers a foothold into victims’ systems, according to SolarWinds, the company whose software was compromised.

Among those who use SolarWinds software are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department, the Justice Department, parts of the Pentagon and a number of utility companies. While the presence of the software is not by itself evidence that each network was compromised and information was stolen, investigators spent Monday trying to understand the extent of the damage in what could be a significant loss of American data to a foreign attacker.

It’s unlikely that the SVR (a successor to the KGB) penetrated all of those networks. But it is likely that they penetrated many of the important ones. And that they have buried themselves into those networks, giving them persistent access even if this vulnerability is patched. This is a massive intelligence coup for the Russians and failure for the Americans, even if no classified networks were touched.

Meanwhile, CISA has directed everyone to remove SolarWinds from their networks. This is (1) too late to matter, and (2) likely to take many months to complete. Probably the right answer, though.

This is almost too stupid to believe:

In one previously unreported issue, multiple criminals have offered to sell access to SolarWinds’ computers through underground forums, according to two researchers who separately had access to those forums.

One of those offering claimed access over the Exploit forum in 2017 was known as “fxmsp” and is wanted by the FBI “for involvement in several high-profile incidents,” said Mark Arena, chief executive of cybercrime intelligence firm Intel471. Arena informed his company’s clients, which include U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Security researcher Vinoth Kumar told Reuters that, last year, he alerted the company that anyone could access SolarWinds’ update server by using the password “solarwinds123”

“This could have been done by any attacker, easily,” Kumar said.

Neither the password nor the stolen access is considered the most likely source of the current intrusion, researchers said.

That last sentence is important, yes. But the sloppy security practice is likely not an isolated incident, and speaks to the overall lack of security culture at the company.

And I noticed that SolarWinds has removed its customer page, presumably as part of its damage control efforts. I quoted from it. Did anyone save a copy?

EDITED TO ADD: Both the Wayback Machine and Brian Krebs have saved the SolarWinds customer page.

Posted on December 17, 2020 at 2:18 PMView Comments

Should There Be Limits on Persuasive Technologies?

Persuasion is as old as our species. Both democracy and the market economy depend on it. Politicians persuade citizens to vote for them, or to support different policy positions. Businesses persuade consumers to buy their products or services. We all persuade our friends to accept our choice of restaurant, movie, and so on. It’s essential to society; we couldn’t get large groups of people to work together without it. But as with many things, technology is fundamentally changing the nature of persuasion. And society needs to adapt its rules of persuasion or suffer the consequences.

Democratic societies, in particular, are in dire need of a frank conversation about the role persuasion plays in them and how technologies are enabling powerful interests to target audiences. In a society where public opinion is a ruling force, there is always a risk of it being mobilized for ill purposes — ­such as provoking fear to encourage one group to hate another in a bid to win office, or targeting personal vulnerabilities to push products that might not benefit the consumer.

In this regard, the United States, already extremely polarized, sits on a precipice.

There have long been rules around persuasion. The US Federal Trade Commission enforces laws that claims about products “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” Political advertisers must identify themselves in television ads. If someone abuses a position of power to force another person into a contract, undue influence can be argued to nullify that agreement. Yet there is more to persuasion than the truth, transparency, or simply applying pressure.

Persuasion also involves psychology, and that has been far harder to regulate. Using psychology to persuade people is not new. Edward Bernays, a pioneer of public relations and nephew to Sigmund Freud, made a marketing practice of appealing to the ego. His approach was to tie consumption to a person’s sense of self. In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays advocated engineering events to persuade target audiences as desired. In one famous stunt, he hired women to smoke cigarettes while taking part in the 1929 New York City Easter Sunday parade, causing a scandal while linking smoking with the emancipation of women. The tobacco industry would continue to market lifestyle in selling cigarettes into the 1960s.

Emotional appeals have likewise long been a facet of political campaigns. In the 1860 US presidential election, Southern politicians and newspaper editors spread fears of what a “Black Republican” win would mean, painting horrific pictures of what the emancipation of slaves would do to the country. In the 2020 US presidential election, modern-day Republicans used Cuban Americans’ fears of socialism in ads on Spanish-language radio and messaging on social media. Because of the emotions involved, many voters believed the campaigns enough to let them influence their decisions.

The Internet has enabled new technologies of persuasion to go even further. Those seeking to influence others can collect and use data about targeted audiences to create personalized messaging. Tracking the websites a person visits, the searches they make online, and what they engage with on social media, persuasion technologies enable those who have access to such tools to better understand audiences and deliver more tailored messaging where audiences are likely to see it most. This information can be combined with data about other activities, such as offline shopping habits, the places a person visits, and the insurance they buy, to create a profile of them that can be used to develop persuasive messaging that is aimed at provoking a specific response.

Our senses of self, meanwhile, are increasingly shaped by our interaction with technology. The same digital environment where we read, search, and converse with our intimates enables marketers to take that data and turn it back on us. A modern day Bernays no longer needs to ferret out the social causes that might inspire you or entice you­ — you’ve likely already shared that by your online behavior.

Some marketers posit that women feel less attractive on Mondays, particularly first thing in the morning — ­and therefore that’s the best time to advertise cosmetics to them. The New York Times once experimented by predicting the moods of readers based on article content to better target ads, enabling marketers to find audiences when they were sad or fearful. Some music streaming platforms encourage users to disclose their current moods, which helps advertisers target subscribers based on their emotional states.

The phones in our pockets provide marketers with our location in real time, helping deliver geographically relevant ads, such as propaganda to those attending a political rally. This always-on digital experience enables marketers to know what we are doing­ — and when, where, and how we might be feeling at that moment.

All of this is not intended to be alarmist. It is important not to overstate the effectiveness of persuasive technologies. But while many of them are more smoke and mirrors than reality, it is likely that they will only improve over time. The technology already exists to help predict moods of some target audiences, pinpoint their location at any given time, and deliver fairly tailored and timely messaging. How far does that ability need to go before it erodes the autonomy of those targeted to make decisions of their own free will?

Right now, there are few legal or even moral limits on persuasion­ — and few answers regarding the effectiveness of such technologies. Before it is too late, the world needs to consider what is acceptable and what is over the line.

For example, it’s been long known that people are more receptive to advertisements made with people who look like them: in race, ethnicity, age, gender. Ads have long been modified to suit the general demographic of the television show or magazine they appear in. But we can take this further. The technology exists to take your likeness and morph it with a face that is demographically similar to you. The result is a face that looks like you, but that you don’t recognize. If that turns out to be more persuasive than coarse demographic targeting, is that okay?

Another example: Instead of just advertising to you when they detect that you are vulnerable, what if advertisers craft advertisements that deliberately manipulate your mood? In some ways, being able to place ads alongside content that is likely to provoke a certain emotional response enables advertisers to do this already. The only difference is that the media outlet claims it isn’t crafting the content to deliberately achieve this. But is it acceptable to actively prime a target audience and then to deliver persuasive messaging that fits the mood?

Further, emotion-based decision-making is not the rational type of slow thinking that ought to inform important civic choices such as voting. In fact, emotional thinking threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the system, as voters are essentially provoked to move in whatever direction someone with power and money wants. Given the pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the often instant, reactive responses people have to them, how much emotion ought to be allowed in persuasive technologies? Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Finally, for most people today, exposure to information and technology is pervasive. The average US adult spends more than eleven hours a day interacting with media. Such levels of engagement lead to huge amounts of personal data generated and aggregated about you­ — your preferences, interests, and state of mind. The more those who control persuasive technologies know about us, what we are doing, how we are feeling, when we feel it, and where we are, the better they can tailor messaging that provokes us into action. The unsuspecting target is grossly disadvantaged. Is it acceptable for the same services to both mediate our digital experience and to target us? Is there ever such thing as too much targeting?

The power dynamics of persuasive technologies are changing. Access to tools and technologies of persuasion is not egalitarian. Many require large amounts of both personal data and computation power, turning modern persuasion into an arms race where the better resourced will be better placed to influence audiences.

At the same time, the average person has very little information about how these persuasion technologies work, and is thus unlikely to understand how their beliefs and opinions might be manipulated by them. What’s more, there are few rules in place to protect people from abuse of persuasion technologies, much less even a clear articulation of what constitutes a level of manipulation so great it effectively takes agency away from those targeted. This creates a positive feedback loop that is dangerous for society.

In the 1970s, there was widespread fear about so-called subliminal messaging, which claimed that images of sex and death were hidden in the details of print advertisements, as in the curls of smoke in cigarette ads and the ice cubes of liquor ads. It was pretty much all a hoax, but that didn’t stop the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission from declaring it an illegal persuasive technology. That’s how worried people were about being manipulated without their knowledge and consent.

It is time to have a serious conversation about limiting the technologies of persuasion. This must begin by articulating what is permitted and what is not. If we don’t, the powerful persuaders will become even more powerful.

This essay was written with Alicia Wanless, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

EDITED TO ADD: Ukrainian translation.

Posted on December 14, 2020 at 2:03 PMView Comments

A Cybersecurity Policy Agenda

The Aspen Institute’s Aspen Cybersecurity Group — I’m a member — has released its cybersecurity policy agenda for the next four years.

The next administration and Congress cannot simultaneously address the wide array of cybersecurity risks confronting modern society. Policymakers in the White House, federal agencies, and Congress should zero in on the most important and solvable problems. To that end, this report covers five priority areas where we believe cybersecurity policymakers should focus their attention and resources as they contend with a presidential transition, a new Congress, and massive staff turnover across our nation’s capital.

  • Education and Workforce Development
  • Public Core Resilience
  • Supply Chain Security
  • Measuring Cybersecurity
  • Promoting Operational Collaboration

Lots of detail in the 70-page report.

Posted on December 11, 2020 at 6:57 AMView Comments

Undermining Democracy

Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on November 27, 2020 at 6:10 AMView Comments

More on the Security of the 2020 US Election

Last week I signed on to two joint letters about the security of the 2020 election. The first was as one of 59 election security experts, basically saying that while the election seems to have been both secure and accurate (voter suppression notwithstanding), we still need to work to secure our election systems:

We are aware of alarming assertions being made that the 2020 election was “rigged” by exploiting technical vulnerabilities. However, in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent. To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.

That said, it is imperative that the US continue working to bolster the security of elections against sophisticated adversaries. At a minimum, all states should employ election security practices and mechanisms recommended by experts to increase assurance in election outcomes, such as post-election risk-limiting audits.

The New York Times wrote about the letter.

The second was a more general call for election security measures in the US:

Obviously elections themselves are partisan. But the machinery of them should not be. And the transparent assessment of potential problems or the assessment of allegations of security failure — even when they could affect the outcome of an election — must be free of partisan pressures. Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election.

These pile on to the November 12 statement from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the other agencies of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) Executive Committee. While I’m not sure how they have enough comparative data to claim that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they are certainly credible in saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

We have a long way to go to secure our election systems from hacking. Details of what to do are known. Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines is important, but baseless claims of fraud don’t help.

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Michael Ellis as NSA General Counsel

Over at Lawfare, Susan Hennessey has an excellent primer on how Trump loyalist Michael Ellis got to be the NSA General Counsel, over the objections of NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and what Biden can and should do about it.

While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.

The moment also poses a test for President-elect Biden’s transition, which must address the delicate balance between remedying improper politicization of the intelligence community, defending career roles against impermissible burrowing, and restoring civil service rules that prohibit both partisan favoritism and retribution. The Biden team needs to set a marker now, to clarify the situation to the public and to enable a new Pentagon general counsel to proceed with credibility and independence in investigating and potentially taking remedial action upon assuming office.

The NSA general counsel is not a Senate-confirmed role. Unlike the general counsels of the CIA, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all of which require confirmation, the NSA’s general counsel is a senior career position whose occupant is formally selected by and reports to the general counsel of the Department of Defense. It’s an odd setup — ­and one that obscures certain realities, like the fact that the NSA general counsel in practice reports to the NSA director. This structure is the source of a perennial legislative fight. Every few years, Congress proposes laws to impose a confirmation requirement as more appropriately befits an essential administration role, and every few years, the executive branch opposes those efforts as dangerously politicizing what should be a nonpolitical job.

While a lack of Senate confirmation reduces some accountability and legislative screening, this career selection process has the benefit of being designed to eliminate political interference and to ensure the most qualified candidate is hired. The system includes a complex set of rules governing a selection board that interviews candidates, certifies qualifications and makes recommendations guided by a set of independent merit-based principles. The Pentagon general counsel has the final call in making a selection. For example, if the panel has ranked a first-choice candidate, the general counsel is empowered to choose one of the others.

Ryan Goodman has a similar article at Just Security.

Posted on November 18, 2020 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.