Charles Jennings is the author of “Artificial Intelligence: Rise of the Lightspeed Learners” and chairman of Swan Island Networks.
In the world’s darkest hour, on the eve of World War II, industrialist giants Henry Kaiser and William Knudsen stepped forward to make ships, tanks, trucks and the armaments of war. Their fast work helped save Europe and, probably, the free world.
Today, the United States and its values are threatened by a new blitzkrieg, this time from Russian cyberwar fighters. But where are the legatees of Knudson and Kaiser? Where are the tech leaders of this age who can, in a crisis, do what government cannot?
U.S. democracy is under continuing attack by Russia, as evidenced by the Mueller report and the recent bipartisan Senate report on Russian intrusion. Though each report added to our understanding about what Russia has been up to, neither suggested an effective response.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Launched in 2014, Russia’s massive, ongoing cyberattack on election systems has methodically scanned election infrastructure from the inside in all 50 states. Its attack surface extends from Facebook to state voter databases to county election boards. Russia’s goal, almost certainly, is a massive disruption of our 2020 presidential election. This isn’t “meddling.” It’s war.
This attack could hardly come at a worse time. Our politics are polarized, Congress is gridlocked, and we have a president and Senate majority leader who either deny or ignore the Russian attacks.
Plus, our computer voting systems are red-alert vulnerable. The Associated Press reported that the vast majority of our country’s 10,000-plus voting jurisdictions operate on Windows 7 software. In January 2020, Microsoft will stop issuing automatic security upgrades for this obsolete operating system. No major corporation would think of running key systems on it. Voting machine certification standards are a mess, with certification often linked to a standard written in 2005. In today’s theater of cyberwar — with its polymorphic malware, weaponized artificial intelligence and ransomware — our election systems are sitting ducks.
On the front lines, local governments are coping the best they can. But as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in his addendum to the Senate election security report: “We would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army. We shouldn’t ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia’s cyber army.” Yet that, essentially, is what local election officials are being asked to do.
The Senate report found no evidence of tampering with vote counts in 2016 while also acknowledging this conclusion was based on self-reporting by state and local jurisdictions, not forensic investigations. But it did provide enough detail about what happened in Illinois and what the authors refer to as “State 2” (likely Florida) to suggest that Russia will have the capability to alter vote tallies in 2020, unless we take immediate action.
The good news: We still have time — and the technical capacity — to thwart or at least minimize the impact of Russian cyberattacks in our 2020 election. The not-surprising news: These resources are not inside government.
Our best hope now is for latter-day Kaisers and Knudsens to make a stand. We need Satya Nadella of Microsoft to offer his many state and local election system operators a free upgrade to Windows 10. We need Elon Musk to build artificial intelligence defense services, available free to local election IT staff. We need Cisco, Oracle and IBM to offer free security consulting services; we need Symantec, FireEye and SentinelOne to provide free online cyber services; and we need Intel and other chipmakers to get our election systems running on their newest processors, with “hardware-enhanced” security.
If U.S. tech companies committed to upgrading our voting systems the way Henry Kaiser committed to building Liberty ships, we could easily defeat the Russian cyber blitzkrieg and guarantee a free and fair election in 2020. If not, Russia could achieve what appears to be its end goal: a complete discrediting of U.S. democracy.
Why, aside perhaps from patriotic duty, would U.S. tech leaders step up? Because they know they need to change the public narrative about tech companies. They urgently need to become good guys again. Why would state and local Republican leaders, who may not like the tech bosses, permit this? Because if they don’t, the election systems in their home states will have bull’s-eyes on their backs, and other potential attackers besides Russia.
Today’s tech leaders could immediately start working with state and local officials to conduct vulnerability assessments, install highly secure computing platforms, provide staff training and more. This kind of routine blocking-and-tackling support to our election system would make a huge contribution to the resilience of our democracy.
There is no precedent for such direct IT support to outgunned state and local governments, but Kaiser had no road map when he signed up to help defend America. Now is the time for tech leaders to step up as well.