On today's BradCast: Elections are under threat once again this year, and not just from the President of the United States. But one group of cybersecurity experts launched a new initiative on Friday to try and help --- and not a moment too soon. [Audio link to full show is posted below.]
First up, what suffices for some good news today: The Manhattan District Attorney seeking 8 years of Donald Trump's tax records and those from the Trump Organization suggested in a court filing today that his investigation requires those documents since he is examining "extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization...dating back over a decade." Until today, the office of Manhattan District Attorney District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. had indicated only that he was probing the hush-money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 election. Those payments were meant to keep them quiet about affairs with Donald Trump.
Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen is serving a three year sentence for his part in that criminal campaign finance conspiracy which both he and federal prosecutors say was "directed" by Trump himself. But today's court filing makes clear that Vance's probe goes far beyond that. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court said that subpoenas of Trump's financial services institution by the Grand Jury impaneled by Vance were permissible, though they sent the case back to a lower court for one more review, delaying any potential state prosecution of Trump or his associates likely until after the election. Now we have some confirmation that Vance's state investigation (which is immune to Presidential pardon power) appears much broader than previously publicly known.
In other accountability news, a 17-year old from Tampa, Florida was arrested on Friday, accused of being the mastermind behind a scheme last month that commandeered the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and other high-profile politicians, CEOs and pop stars. The conspiracy --- two others were also arrested, including a 19-year old from the UK and a 22-year old from Orlando --- was an attempt to scam more than $100,000 in Bitcoin out of gullible people who followed the Twitter accounts of those celebrities, which were taken over by the alleged perpetrators.
As we've observed before, if multi-billion dollar social media companies such as Twitter, which spends huge sums of money on cybersecurity, can't keep their systems safe from hacks like this, what chance does Mr. and Mrs. Local County Election Clerk have in protecting their computer voter registration databases, electronic pollbooks, computerized voting systems and computer tabulators this November? That effort is made all the more impossible this year thanks to the expansion of Vote-by-Mail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the refusal of Republicans in Congress to appropriate the $4 billion that election officials across the country have been seeking for months in hopes of expanding election systems and protecting it from cyber-intrusion and other related failures this year. The federal government --- via the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) --- offers extremely limited support for the nation's 13,000 independent voting jurisdictions.
But with just over 90 days until Election Day now, a new initiative is being launched out of the University of Chicago Harris Cyber Policy Initiative called the Election Cyber Surge. The initiative, according to its Executive Director MAYA WORMAN, who joins us on the show today, is to bring volunteer cybersecurity and voting systems experts together with local elections officials to help them with whatever cyber-related problems or concerns they may be facing before the election. The hope, she explains, is to help prevent cyberintrusions and ransomware attacks and the like before they happen.
"The need is clear," she tells me. "I think it's increasingly more obvious to those who aren't following this closely, who aren't following this beat. That, in itself, is a strong indicator that we are needed. ... It's not just voter rolls. It's not just the output of the machines, but all of the things in between, including maps of where all of your polling place might be, the hours that they're open, what the deadlines are to register, the information you need once you get there --- all of this stuff can be tweaked just slightly. That could affect the major portion of the voters in any given jurisdiction."
Given the enormous complexity of today's voting and counting systems --- not to mention often-interconnected voter registration systems and electronic pollbooks --- the free help offered by Cyber Surge is likely to be invaluable to thousands of local jurisdictions who may have limited, if any, IT support and a lack of access to cybsersecurity experts. Though we are now just three months out from this year's critical Presidential election (mail-in ballots will go out and early voting will begin in as few as 45 days in some places), Worman says she is confident that the new initiative --- born out of DefCon's "Voting Village", a hacking conference where white-hat hackers have been successfully trying their luck on various voting systems since 2017 --- will prove helpful to myriad election officials who, too often, rely only on private voting systems vendors for support.
"More than 50% of all election officials rely on at least 6 different vendors," Worman observes. "I think there's obviously an expectation that the people with whom they are doing business will not lead them astray, and maybe they won't. But when you have so many different, overlapping tools and systems and a network, and it's all being fed by an antiquated database that is protected who knows how, that is where vulnerabilities from having multiple vendors comes in."
Worman, and (hopefully) cavalry of experts aim to help. And quickly. The effort will be more necessary than ever this year given the necessary changes being made to voting during the pandemic and, thanks to Republican intransigence in Congress, a lack of financial resources to pay for it. "The days of making sure that the room where the ballots are kept is locked --- we're far beyond that now. So a reality check that is gentle, but based in reality, is critical," she warns, adding: "Without sounding too trite, I think staying positive is key here. I think it is very clear that there are more people who want our elections to work than who don't want them to work. And that's important to remember."
Finally, on a somewhat lighter note today, we open up the phone lines to listeners for their thoughts on a) who they would like to see presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden choose as his Vice-Presidential candidate and b) who those same listeners fear he will actually name. Some of the responses from callers may surprise you!...
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(Snail mail support to "Brad Friedman, 7095 Hollywood Blvd., #594 Los Angeles, CA 90028" always welcome too!)