In advance of the 2020 Presidential election, a new documentary, Kill Chain: The Cyber War on American’s Elections, debuting tonight on HBO, takes a deep dive into the weaknesses of today’s election technology, investigating the startling vulnerabilities in America’s voting systems and the alarming risks they pose to our democracy.
From filmmakers Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale, the team behind HBO’s 2006 documentary Hacking Democracy, the film follows Finnish hacker and cyber security expert Harri Hursti as he travels around the world and across the U.S. to show how our election systems remain dangerously unprotected.
As the film uncovers, despite official claims to the contrary, individuals and foreign states can employ an array of simple, low-cost techniques to gain access to voting systems at any stage – from voter registration databases to actual election results to malware that can be widely distributed and anonymously activated without detection at any point.
News reports and government agencies have chronicled dozens of seemingly random, unrelated security breaches in the past, but Hursti asks viewers to consider them as potentially part of a coordinated “kill chain,” a military strategy that employs meticulous, long-game attacks. At the end of this kill chain lies a breakdown in the public’s trust in elections and with that collapse, a loss of faith in the democratic process itself. While outlining the startling ease with which votes can be altered, Kill Chain also points to the clear, easy-to-implement solutions available to protect us against sabotage.
Hursti has a long history of drawing attention to the vulnerabilities of election technology. In 2005, he hacked into a widely-used voting machine in Florida; despite widespread public outrage, the same machine is slated for use in many states in the 2020 election. In Kill Chain, with humor and candor, Hursti travels across the country and to his homeland of Finland to assess the current state of election security and whether improvements touted by the election technology manufacturers since his 20045 hack have, in fact, made elections safer.
Returning to Florida, Hursti learns that prior to the 2016 election, the FBI alerted officials that a foreign power had targeted a Florida vendor that runs voter registration in eight states, an attack capable of wreaking havoc on election day.
Despite claims by election-machine makers that they keep units under lock-and-key, Hursti finds a warehouse in Ohio full of AccuVote TSX machines, a model that will be used in the 2020 election, being sold on eBay.
During Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, Secretary of State and Republican candidate Brian Kemp had oversight of the election process and fought against replacing outdated, insecure Accuvote machines. Hursti and other election monitors are in Georgia on election day, as machine errors create lengthy wait-times at many polling places.
Also in the film, a hacker, based in India, reveals that he hacked into Alaska’s voting systems on the day of the 2016 presidential election and could have changed any vote or deleted any candidate.
In an interview this week, Hursti, a founding partner of Nordic Innovation Labs, a global technology solutions company, warned that the real question about the 2020 election is “who will be the actors” hacking them.
“There are a bunch of actors already flexing their muscles. It will be a tug of war between the different actors,” he said.
Beside violating the security of the election process, their secondary goal, he added, may be to “undermine people’s trust in society.”
“The only way forward is with hand-marked ballots,” he noted, adding that barring this, “We should do everything we can to improve the security of election infrastructure.”
As Senator Amy Klobuchar says in the film, “It’s not just about hardware, it’s the hardware of our democracy.”