This month, Nathan Fielder, the prankster genius behind Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You,” popped a 13-minute video onto his YouTube feed titled “Can the Emmys Be Hacked?”
Amid the endless discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Fielder had identified another clear and present danger: What if a hacker with an irrational appreciation of Judd Hirsch made this the year of “Superior Donuts?”
Fielder’s piece was surprisingly simple, considering his history. In the clip, Fielder talked briefly of his concern that “Nathan for You” could get robbed of its rightful place on the Emmy stage. The show did earn rave reviews for its fourth and perhaps final season, with Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris declaring, in an essay in the New Yorker, that the “Finding Frances” season finale was “my new favorite exploration of love.”
To make his point, Fielder interviewed Carsten Schürmann. The Danish voting security expert demonstrated a potential breach in the Emmy voting process largely through phishing, which tricks people into sharing personal information that can then be used for scams.
With the nomination process closing Monday, the Television Academy, which presents the Emmy Awards, responded to our request for a response.
“The Television Academy has seen Mr. Fielder’s video parody,” an academy spokesman said in a statement. “Phishing scams like the one described by Mr. Fielder’s security expert are a concern for anyone with an online account, no matter the site, from banking to retail to social media. As is common practice for those looking to protect their online accounts, we strongly recommend our members confirm they are on the official Television Academy voting site before entering any of their account information. We are quite confident in the security of our site and are continuously monitoring for any phishing activities like those described.”
Fair enough, but the statement did not address several questions about the voting process. The spokesman also said nobody from the academy would be available for an interview.
Schürmann, who earned a measure of acclaim when he hacked a voting machine at a 2017 conference in Las Vegas, showed Fielder on camera how he could create a phony Web page by purchasing an Internet domain similar to that used by the Television Academy and then duping the organization’s voters into unwittingly authenticating a hacker’s votes.
The weaknesses in the system didn’t surprise Schürmann.
“All attacks are frighteningly easy once you’ve discovered them,” he told Fielder. And in an interview this week with The Washington Post, Schürmann talked of how he hopes Fielder’s clips lead to more awareness of what he considers a more important issue, voter fraud. He’s concerned about the potential for hacking during the upcoming midterms.
“These phishing attacks are successful in 40 percent of cases,” he said. “We trust our computers, and we trust our email. And we let our guards down all the time.”
Philip Stark, the associate dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of California, went a step further when asked by The Post to review Fielder’s piece. Phishing is only one way to try to hack votes, he said. He noted that Schürmann could have also done a port scan for Fielder. That’s how security experts — and hackers — check systems for potential vulnerabilities.
“If he had, I strongly suspect he would have found a vulnerability,” Stark said.
Is the Television Academy taking the threat seriously, or is there real hope for Marvel’s “Iron Fist”? The spokesman would not talk of what measures were in place to monitor the process as its 23,000 members click through.
Fielder, at first, was also reluctant to discuss his Emmy piece. But he agreed to a brief interview after being told of the academy’s response.
“I don’t believe the video to be a parody, but I do appreciate the Television Academy addressing me as Mr. Fielder as opposed to Nathan,” he began in his typically halting delivery.
Fielder said he decided to do this piece in part because of all the election hacking stories he has been following.
“It’s always great to find a cause that’s both self-serving and benefits humanity as a whole,” he said. “Kind of like how hotels encourage you to reuse your towels to help the environment so they won’t have to do laundry.”
Did Fielder care about winning an Emmy?
“I think awards are an important part of the Hollywood machine,” he said. “America gets really excited every award season. Awards are a big part of American culture.”
Okay, but what about you?
“Look, there’s a lot of people that worked on the show, that put a lot of effort in, and if I get nominated and the show gets nominated, I think that’s really great, but it’s only great if we can trust the results,” Fielder said. “Because otherwise what are we participating in here, just a funny little play experiment?”