05 September, 2016

Are You Prepared For November 9th?

We rush towards disaster and greet it with a smirk.

I sketched out what this disaster might look like when Bloomberg broke the story of Andrés Sepúlveda, a man who claims to have help hack elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela, this spring:
Andrés Sepúlveda is a challenge that neither our political institutions nor our political philosophy have prepared us to meet…. If [the hackers] performance is done just right no one in the audience will know if the electoral victories they witness were justly won or were delivered by puppeteers in the shadows.

It is this ambiguity that makes Sepúlveda's methods so dangerous. His is a poisoned dart aimed at the heart of liberal democracy. For the governing regimes of the Western world are built on a myth, and it is a myth that goes like this: in democracies, decisions of state are made by the will of the people. That actual policy making in democratic regimes is only tenuously connected to popular will is immaterial. A belief in the 'consent of the governed' preserves the peace. It allows for factions to compete for control of the state without violence. It is a useful myth (and if limited to the selection of candidates, one that has some truth to it), but one that depends of a transparent system of electioneering to sustain it. The democracy of the election hackers is not transparent. They muddy the system. The more infamous cases like this become, the muddier the system gets. It is important to understand that no team needs to consistently succeed in hacking their preferred candidates into victory for this to be true--all that is needed for democracy to lose its luster is a belief that a given electoral system could be hacked. [1]

I ended that piece with a few speculative hypotheticals:

Just what does American democracy look like when foreign syndicates and intelligence agencies can manipulate social media and internet platforms to boost the candidates they prefer? An even more important question: what does American democracy look like when Americans believe foreign syndicates and intelligence agencies are manipulating them to boost the candidates they prefer? What happens when the losing side of any electoral contest believes they lost because someone on the other side hacked the election to their advantage?

We will soon find out. [2]

At the time I feared my words were a tad too dramatic. I fear this no longer. My hypotheticals are no longer hypothetical. We now know exactly what it looks like when foreign intelligence agencies manipulate American social media and internet platforms to boost the candidates they prefer. We also now know exactly what it looks like when Americans believe that foreign intelligence agencies are manipulating our election cycles.

Welcome to the war, America.

What we do not yet know is how America responds after actual voting on election day has been manipulated. We will know soon. 

Are you prepared for November 9th?

The vulnerability of voting machines to outside hacking is at this point long proven. Among many circles it is well known. Well versed tech junkies post articles like this to their Facebook and Twitter profiles with the same smugness they usually call on to ridicule lesser beings who’ve never heard of Truecrypt or password managers. With a smirk they say things like, “septuagenarian officials prove they don’t understand technology, case #2,038!”

Does their smugness prepare them any better for November 9th?

Voting machines are not just hackable—over the last week it has become clear that the infrastructure around them has already been hacked. But the important thing here isn’t how successful Russian attempts are at penetrating the vote tallying machines. All they need to accomplish their goal is to instill the fear that they might have penetrated them.

Every news report on the issue makes the situation that much more serious—every new headline is a new challenge to ambitious hackers looking for international-level lulz; every fresh dispatch is a fresh temptation to campaigns and their sympathizers to ensure that their candidate wins where he or she must; every new broadcast is a potential inspiration for the next radical or terrorist.

Hacking is not technically necessary to pull this sort of operation off. John Robb suggests that a few dozen false bomb threats would be enough to start this ball rolling. I suppose real bombs would do the trick as well.

Are we prepared for November 9th?

We live in a country on edge. Trust in political and social institutions are at historical lows. Social life is atomozied. Politics are polarized. Within the last year radicalized groups from both sides of the aisle have resorted to the force of arms to achieve their ideological agendas. In this shattered state we face a wounded but still powerful enemy who seeks revenge for America’s interference in her own internal affairs, a power who actively works across the globe for a future of diminishing American power.

The time for smugness is over. It is now time for every American of national prominence—the presidential aspirants, of course, but also party and congressional leaders, journalists and media moguls, officials up an down the executive branch—to plan what they will do if the voting of November 8th is disrupted by hidden hacking or open attack. If an hour so grim as this arrives, these careful and measured responses, planned well in advance, will be all that stand between momentary political disruption and a violent social eruption.

 Now is the day to prepare for November 9th.


[1] T. Greer, "Hacking Democracy," Scholar's Stage (1 April 2016). For the Selpuveda story, see Jordan Robertson, Michael Riley, and Andrew Willis, "How to Hack an Election," Bloomberg Newsweek, 30 March, 2016 (print edition, 4 April, 2016).

[2] Greer, "Hacking Democracy,"