Though the November 2020 election has probably never felt farther away, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about how we’re going to protect its integrity and ensure that this vital aspect of democracy runs smoothly.
Then again, considering what we’ve learned about Russian interference in 2016 and beyond, and how routinely voting issues crop up every cycle, what if America is already behind the eight ball on that front as well? That’s the scary scenario rolled out over 90 minutes in the HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” from filmmakers Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale, which says that electronic voting is still woefully unsafe from bad actors, be they nations or loners. Distraction viewing, this admittedly isn’t.
The trio behind “Kill Chain” have tackled this story before, in the 2006 documentary “Hacking Democracy,” which centered on vulnerabilities in the Diebold e-voting machines that had risen to prominence in the 2000 and 2004 elections. In that film, Finnish computer security expert Harri Hursti demonstrated how easy it was to get into a Diebold system to change votes. Diebold is no more — it was bought by another company, which was then subsumed by a bigger voting machine outfit — but Hursti is still around, his knowledge of election security problems even greater, so it’s not surprising that the filmmakers have made him their tour guide for the 2.0 version of their techno-cautious crusade.
At the core of the movie’s warning is that an electronic voting machine is always penetrable — something most readily proved in a scene at the annual hacker convention Def Con, in which Hursti instructs assembled participants to try to sabotage the voting machines provided, which they then do. That the main companies behind these products are tight-lipped about their security, and breaches around the country are sometimes kept from the public, doesn’t inspire confidence.
But also, as Hursti and interviews with cyber analysts, security gurus, journalists and concerned politicians make clear, the threat doesn’t have to be some blanket attack or even about switching or erasing votes in ballot machines. It only takes altering address numbers in the voter roll electronic files of one targeted county to cause enough confusion and delay on election day to be considered a wholly successful hack.
Though voting machines aren’t supposed to be accessible to the public, Hursti finds someone selling old AccuVote TSX machines (a model still in use) on EBay. The film also wades into the irregularities and hinkiness surrounding Georgia’s 2018 elections, and the close gubernatorial race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was allowed to oversee an election rife with problems, and who after taking office hired a lobbyist from an e-voting business as his chief of staff.
The title “Kill Chain” comes from a military term for how an enemy clarifies its attack steps. Though clearly meant to inject paranoid gravity to an already persuasive argument about the perils inherent in electronic voting systems, the movie is more helpful when giving voice to what experts say is the only true solution: the simple physical record of a paper ballot. UC Berkeley statistics professor Philip Stark makes a convincing case for his “risk-limiting auditing” methodology, which when applied to the 2018 Georgia contest revealed that one Democratic district’s suddenly going Republican was a one in a million possibility.
Swift and blunt, “Kill Chain” is designed to strike fear and leave you viewing any voting machine as a disenfranchisement tool. The irony, of course, is that one of the movie’s big takeaways is that, more than the literal scrubbing of anyone’s touchscreen vote, the overarching goal of any election hacker is merely souring our trust in democratic processes. In this time of widespread concern for the health of our institutions — and what voting in the year of coronavirus is even going to look like — “Kill Chain,” as well-intentioned as it is, kinda sorta does that too.
'Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections'
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Available on HBO