Interview: 2020 Election Security and the Future of Online Voting

March 17, 2020

Jordan Mauriello, SVP of Managed Security, shares his thoughts with Steve Gruber of the Steve Gruber Podcast on election security and the vulnerabilities associated with polling places in light of the coming 2020 elections.

Full Video Transcript:

SG: It is six states going to the polls today, and critical states. Bernie Sanders would like nothing more than to repeat his upset victory that he claimed in Michigan four years ago when he beat Hillary Clinton, who was supposedly up by 20 points – 27 points one poll had her up before the primary in Michigan. And Bernie Sanders came in and pulled it off.

What about the vulnerability of polling places when it comes to online impacts, cyber impacts, cyberattacks? Jordan Mauriello here, CRITICALSTART‘s VP of Managed Security. Jordan, welcome to the program.

JM: Thank you very much, Steve. Happy to be with you this morning.

SG: So my understanding Jordan, is that most of these election machines, the tabulation machines, the computers themselves are not connected directly to the internet. But then I talk and hear from people who say, “Now wait a second, we’re gonna make it possible to vote online.” Well, obviously, if you’re voting online, you’re connected to the internet directly. What should be my concerns? Where are the vulnerabilities?

JM: So there’s definitely a lot of confusion about what the technology actually does in voting machines these days and the reason for that is it is, actually, different state to state in a lot of places. We see places like Iowa, which set a precedent for, oh, there’s an app, and online technology for voting that is being used, and clearly had significant technological issues, not to mention the lack of proper security assessment that was actually done there. So there were vulnerabilities that were introduced and significant problems as a part of the election.

But mostly what we’re actually seeing is a move towards an upgraded ballot marking device, or a device which eventually transfers votes through some, kind of, centralized system that is online, but then uploads those votes for a digital count mechanism. That’s where a lot of times we see the vulnerability mechanisms are actually introduced, is when we centralize this. But there’s always some way that they’re being connected to a network and being tabulated.

SG: So, the vulnerabilities, in your line of work, then, you go through and you say, “Okay, I see a weakness here, I see a weakness here.” Is that how you approach your job?

JM: Yeah. And that’s, often, what organizations bring us in to do, is to attempt to find what are the mechanisms to which something might be compromised. And, so, when we’re looking at election security specifically, you know, if we’re looking at in ballot marking devices, a good example of this is, the new devices they purchased in South Carolina, right? It’s like, “Oh, great it’s a ballot marking device.” And so you’re gonna use a screen, a touch screen to make your selection, and it’s gonna print out a ballot, it’s marked it for you. But then when it reads back in, what it actually reads is the bar code at the bottom.

And so, if you were a malicious activist, especially with someone with the kind of resources that a foreign nation-state would have that want to disrupt elections, well, you could certainly compromise that machine. As it prints out the proper results, when you’re validating, look it printed, “Oh, yes, I voted for Joe Biden. Yes, I voted for Bernie Sanders.” But then the bar code, well none of these humans that can read a bar code right now. So, you would feed that back in and not know what the bar code might actually register back to the device itself and that is a vulnerability.

SG: Yeah. Jordan, I know enough people that have enough difficulty reading period. Barcodes, I mean, let’s talk about that’s a little bit tougher.

Jordan Mauriello here, CRITICALSTART‘s VP of Managed Security.

So, let me ask you this. When you go in and vote yourself, I assume you vote-

JM: Yes sir.

SG: Do you have concerns about the security of your vote? Do you, do you have much security concerns overall when it comes to the reliability and accuracy of elections across this country?

JM: I think we saw, based on the 2016 elections, and what happened both at the campaign level and with evidence that’s come out from Durham County, North Carolina, that there definitely are problems and there are concerns that I have.

As a security expert, I look at the process they plan on. I’m definitely gonna go in, I’m gonna double-check my vote. I’m gonna look at the printout and make it sure it matches as best I can. I’m gonna feed it back in the device and make sure it says what I actually did, as being registered on the screen again. But I also had concerns at the campaign level.

And we saw the detriment that the cybersecurity problems were, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. And those are very, very real issues. When you’re talking about the resources and capability that a foreign nation-state has in cyber warfare and applying that against not just election infrastructure, but even campaigns. There’s definitely significant concerns that both at an information and disinformation level, and an election security equipment level, that things could be compromised or disrupted.

SG: Well, and that’s a big concern obviously. I’m more concerned, honestly, in the way they’re tryin’ to do it in an old-fashioned way. What I mean by that is, you look at mail-in ballots. I think they’re more susceptible to fraud, potentially, the way it’s set up. Certainly in California with ballot harvesting and so forth. But, as you look forward then, Jordan, do you see a better situation? Are you more confident, more optimistic as you look at the future with more technology, more safety standards and protocols put in place? What do you make of it?

JM: So, I think we’ve made some very strong decisions in the last four years now to help improve election security, but it’s a slow process. It’s not happening overnight. We created the cybersecurity infrastructure and security agency in 2018, but there’s still a lot of things that have to be accomplished as a part of that.

And I think, Homeland Security, the committee and subcommittee on cybersecurity and privacy are moving in the right direction, being led by a lot of the right people, but there are a lot of things that we have to train election officials on. Have to educate, have to put the right equipment in place.

There are problems with even hard ballots and mail-in ballots that need to be approached from a process perspective, but then the technological issues and even the desire for some states to move to electronic voting introduces a whole new level of vulnerability that genuinely we are not prepared for from an election infrastructure perspective yet, and that has to be approached with the right mindset.

And I know a lot of people have asked, “Hey, are we moving to online voting?” and the real answer is, I hope not, because we are not ready, in the election infrastructure to actually do that yet.

SG: And I think we should leave it right there. We are not ready for that, and yet they keep pushing ideas ahead. Jordan Mauriello, CRITICALSTART‘s VP of Managed Security.

Jordan, greatly appreciate your insight in the conversation today.

JM: Thank you, Steve. It was a pleasure to be with you, sir.

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