The scenario election officials feared – Russians hacking the vote – did not come to be on Super Tuesday. But the mega-primary day was bedeviled by a slew of serious technical glitches that frustrated voters.
Voting machines shut down in Los Angeles. Network problems also forced California officials to hand out provisional ballots. In Minnesota and Texas, tools voters use to look up their polling locations were not functioning due to heavy web traffic. And there were robocalls spreading disinformation in Texas, which were reported for federal investigation.
The problems underscored how such issues can sow as much distrust and chaos as a hacking campaign — especially if rumors are left to swirl. The government’s top cybersecurity officials spent much of the day assuring the public that technology was the culprit, not Russia.
“To the extent we can put more information in the hands of voters to be more informed, resilient voters, we’ll have better outcomes,” a top official at the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said during a 9 p.m. call. “We’ll be able to get ahead of these more salacious claims that something might be happening and put appropriate information in the hands of the public.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly with reporters, praised election officials for getting information about the tech problems rapidly to voters. “We’ll continue to shout that message up to November and afterward.”
Acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf earlier urged voters to steer clear of Internet rumors and look to trusted information from state and local governments. “This is where the American people come into play, is the awareness and engagement, through public messaging campaigns,” he said. “[To] build resilience to disinformation, we encourage every voter to get their election information straight from the source, from a trusted source, which is their local or state election office.”
Here’s a rundown of the issues voters faced in the 14 states where they cast primary ballots:
Machine shutdowns hobbled large swaths of Los Angeles County voting locations:
At one point, about 20 percent of the county’s voting systems were not operational, a spokesman for the county clerk’s office told my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker.
That produced lengthy waits time at polling locations including the University of California at Los Angeles student center, where students and staff reported waiting up to two hours to cast their votes. The campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sued unsuccessfully to keep L.A. polling locations open late and many voters were still waiting in line to vote hours after their location's 8 p.m. closing time, according to local media. Under California law, voters in line when polls close must be allowed to cast ballots.
The problems, which officials insisted were not caused by hacking or any security issues, nevertheless produced a rough first major outing for the county’s new custom-built electronic voting machines, which have been dogged by security and accessibility concerns as my colleague Neena Satija and I reported. As Isaac notes, “It was yet another indictment of the use of technology in elections, following the spectacular failure of a mobile app used in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.”
Network problems with electronic poll books in California:
This made it far more complicated for poll workers to look up voters – and the provisional ballots election workers handed out instead in Los Angeles had to be postmarked the same day to be counted, Isaac reports.
Elsewhere in California, digital problems with the electronic poll books forced 15 counties to manually look up voters and print their ballots, the Sacramento Bee reported.
“This should not [have] prevented any voters from casting a ballot, as counties have contingency procedures in place to check-in voters,” Sam Mahood, press secretary for Secretary of State Alex Padilla, said in a statement.
Robocalls spread disinformation targeting Democratic voters in Texas:
A wave of mysterious robocalls targeted Texas voters, telling Republicans and independents to show up to the polls and Democrats to vote the next day, my colleague Tony Romm reported.
“The calls have raised red flags with state election officials, who warned the public about them Tuesday, and prompted frustration among area Democratic leaders, who said the barrage could be a form of voter suppression,” Tony reported. While the suspect calls appeared to come from at least two numbers with a San Antonio area code, "the numbers themselves may be spoofed, meaning the real person or organization behind the unsolicited messages are masquerading their efforts to make it appear as if they are calling from valid numbers nearby,” Tony reports.
The calls were referred to law enforcement for investigation, the CISA official said.
Tool to help voters find their polling locations went offline Texas and Minnesota:
In Texas, heavy web traffic temporarily took offline a state-run website that voters use to determine which polling location to head to, the secretary of state’s office said on Twitter.
The same problem plagued Minnesota, sparking concerns about election interference. “Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said the pattern has fueled suspicion of malicious efforts to overwhelm the websites — or worse," the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. “I think there is a larger issue around what's happening around the country with attempts by some … outside actors to infiltrate election systems,” he said.
But matters got even worse when a staffer in the secretary of state's office tried to fix the issue by temporarily redirecting visitors to a site called BoldProgressives.org that has backed Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Star Tribune reported.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon called the staffer’s move “a serious lapse of judgment” but noted the link was active only for about 17 minutes.
Some states and counties saw an increase in digital probing of their computer networks:
Chris Wlaschin, vice president of systems security at the voting machine company Election Systems and Software, said there was a spike of reports of website probing to the digital information sharing portal managed by election officials and voting machine vendors.
None of those probes resulted in any networks being penetrated, though, and it’s not clear if the probing came from U.S. adversaries or elsewhere, he said.
Russian hackers probed election systems in numerous states prior to the 2016 election and penetrated a voter database in Illinois, but there's no evidence they changed any votes. DHS has outfitted election offices with cybersecurity sensors since then that makes it far easier to identify hacking efforts.
And yet, despite all those technical issues, federal officials remained confident late into the night that no voters were affected by hacking operations and that there was no spike in foreign disinformation, which CISA Director Chris Krebs described as steady since 2016.
“The Russians never left in 2016. They continue to engage in this broad, large scale disinformation influence operations,” he said.
It’s not clear why Russia or another adversary didn’t make a greater effort to disrupt the Super Tuesday contest, but one reason could be new protections put in place since 2016, acting DHS secretary Wolf said.
In addition to the DHS cybersecurity sensors, that includes a roughly $900 million state and federal investment in new voting machines with paper records and other election system upgrades. It also includes a cross-country DHS effort to test election systems for digital vulnerabilities and train election officials on how to protect their computer systems.
“It's because of the hardened systems…that we put in place. It's the work that CISA, but also the state and local folks, have done over the last three or four years that makes it more and more difficult for our adversaries," Wolf said. “So I think it's important to pause here and take credit for some of the work that we've done….It’s not by happenstance that nothing is occurring today,”
PINGED, PATCHED, PWNED
PINGED: Congress and the Justice Department are preparing to unveil anti-child exploitation efforts this week that could undermine encryption protections that tech companies say are important for cybersecurity, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The new measures come as Facebook is pushing to expand superstrong encryption across its messaging services, a move that lawmakers and Justice Department officials say will make it harder to detect child predators sharing images on the platform.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) could release legislation as soon as today that would withhold certain legal protections from tech companies if they don’t follow Justice Department guidelines to combat child sexual exploitation, according to a copy of the measure obtained by The Post.
Facebook is already expressing concerns about the bill, called the “EARN IT Act” “We’re concerned the EARN IT Act may be used to roll back encryption, which protects everyone’s safety from hackers and criminals, and may limit the ability of American companies to provide the private and secure services that people expect,” Facebook spokesman Thomas Richards said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Justice Department officials are set to unveil a set of 11 “voluntary principles” tomorrow that target child sexual exploitation, Tony reports.
Separately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office yesterday urging the office to review government efforts to combat online child abuse, including the effects of encryption.
PATCHED: A major Chinese cybersecurity firm has accused CIA hackers of an 11-year campaign targeting the Chinese airline industry, Raphael Satter at Reuters reports. The report could be a tit-for-tat retaliation for U.S. officials indicting Chinese hackers last month for the massive 2017 breach of the credit ratings agency Equifax, Adam Segal, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar focused on China and cybersecurity, told Raphael.
The CIA hackers also targeted China’s energy sector, scientific research organizations, internet companies and government agencies -- possibly for the purpose of tracking important figures’ travel itineraries, the cybersecurity firm Qihoo 360 alleged.
U.S. companies have long pointed to Chinese state hackers as the culprits in major attacks, but it's rare for a Chinese company to do the same.
The report also points to CIA hacking tools exposed by former CIA coder Joshua Schulte, who’s on trial for allegedly leaking classified information. A jury is currently deliberating in that case.
PWNED: A federal court in San Francisco ruled in favor of Facebook in a lawsuit accusing the Israeli spyware company NSO Group of helping government clients hack its WhatsApp messaging service. The ruling was a “default” judgment because NSO never showed up to court to defend itself, Robert Burnson and William Turton at Bloomberg News report.
But NSO says it wasn't given a proper chance to respond to the suit. “WhatsApp prematurely moved for default before properly serving NSO Group with the lawsuit,” a spokesman for the company said in a statement to Bloomberg. “As NSO Group has not been formally served, this default notice will not stand.”
NSO denies allegations by Facebook that it created phony WhatsApp accounts to help customers hack into the mobile phones of about 1,400 people, including numerous journalists and dissidents.
— Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is urging Vice President Pence to create a website that combats disinformation about the coronavirus. The letter comes in response to an unreleased State Department report that identified 2 million tweets peddling coronavirus conspiracy theories, first reported by my colleague Tony Romm.
— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:
— Cybersecurity news from the private sector:
THE NEW WILD WEST
— Cybersecurity news from abroad:
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing on "5G Supply Chain Security: Threats and Solutions" at 10am.
- The House Subcommittee on Government Operations, will hold a hearing to examine whether programs at the General Services Administration (GSA) designed to facilitate the modernization of existing technologies and the adoption of new technologies at 2 p.m.
- The Senate Judiciary will host a hearing “Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing” at 2:30 p.m.
- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Cyber Policy Initaitive will hold a discussion on the forthcoming Cyberspace Solarium Commission report at noon.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on crime and terrorism will hold a hearing titled “Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing” on March 4 at 2:30 p.m.
- The Cyberspace Solarium Commission will release of its final report and recommendations during a public event on March 11 at 2:30 p.m.