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Election security: We must start preparing now for 2018

Alex Halderman testifies before Congress.| Short Read

Three steps can protect U.S. election infrastructure from cyberattacks before the 2018 and 2020 elections, Michigan Engineering Professor J. Alex Halderman told Congress last week.

Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, June 21 as a part of the broader Russian hacking investigation. His remarks focused on vulnerabilities in the U.S. voting system and a policy agenda for securing the system against the threat of hacking.

“We must start preparing now to better defend our election infrastructure and protect it from cyberattacks before the elections in 2018 and 2020,” Halderman said. “The good news is, we know how to accomplish this. Paper ballots, audits, and other straightforward steps can make elections much harder to attack.”

He entered into the record a letter from more than 100 computer scientists, security experts, and election officials. The letter recommends three measures to safeguard U.S. elections:

  1. Bring back paper. It provides a record that can’t be compromised, Halderman said. Replace obsolete and vulnerable voting machines—such as paperless systems—with optical scanners and paper ballots.Thirty-six states already use this technology.
  2. Conduct routine statistical spot-checking of the paper trail. “By manually checking a relatively small random sample of the ballots, officials can quickly and affordably provide high assurance that the election outcome was correct. Optical scan ballots paired with risk-limiting audits provide a practical way to detect and correct vote-changing cyberattacks. They may seem low-tech, but they are a reliable, cost-effective defense.”
  3. Assess threats and follow cybersecurity best practices when designing voting equipment and managing elections.

Halderman estimates that replacing insecure paperless systems would cost between $130 million and $400 million, and running audits nationally for 25 federal elections would cost less than $20 million a year.

“These amounts are vanishingly small compared to the national security improvement the investment buys. Yet such measures could address a prime cyber challenge, boost voter confidence, and significantly strengthen a crucial element of our national security,” he said. “They would also send a firm response to any adversaries contemplating interfering with our election system.”

Halderman has been studying and testing electronic voting systems for more than a decade.

Halderman also published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for congressional action to better secure elections.

This story was co-written by Nicole Casal Moore.

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