Not enough bad news and anxiety in your life this week? You can fix that by watching the HBO documentary Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, airing at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 26.
A kind of sequel to 2006’s Emmy-nominated Hacking Democracy, Chain follows that film’s central figure, Finnish hacker and cyber security expert Harri Hursti, as he travels the United States, checking to see whether any of the voting vulnerabilities he discovered way back when have been addressed and fixed. Answer: not one bit.
As he ventures to Florida, D.C., California, Alaska and points elsewhere, the film finds ample evidence of — and eyewitness testimony about — blatant attacks by Russian hackers leading to the 2016 election, assaulting voting machines and voting databases that are easily manipulated from afar.
At a three-day DEF CON convention for hackers in Nevada, Hursti invites attendees to mess around in a room filled with working models of voting machines sold by the nation’s three vendors and used in elections nationwide. We see how easy, and how quick, it is for these IT savants to hack into each system. (One guy even discovers how to totally power off a voting machine remotely from his laptop.)
“If you don’t believe there is a room like this in Russia, running 24/7, you’re kidding yourself,” Hursti says.
All three manufacturers of the faulty voting machines declined to be interviewed for the documentary.
For Atlanta viewers, the film’s most alarming section comes in the second half, focused on the 2018 election for Georgia governor. We’re reminded that, for more than a decade, the Center for Election Systems designed to direct oversight of the election process was housed independently at Kennesaw State University. In 2018, it was relocated to the state Capitol by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp — who had jurisdiction over elections, including his own race for governor against Democratic rival Stacey Abrams.
Illegal? Maybe not, but it certainly looks ethically sketchy. That makes what happened on Election Day seem even sketchier. In multiple polling places, glitches repeatedly happened — though in the words of Jon Sancho, a former supervisor of elections in Florida, “There is no such thing as a ‘glitch.’ That’s a term we use to hide problems, not to illuminate problems.”
The problems, including electronic cards that failed to register votes in statistically improbable numbers, caused particular problems in populous, diverse Gwinnett County. After waiting in line for hours, many people gave up and went back to work, failing to vote. The film observes that the vast majority of these would-be voters were African American — one of the strongest voting blocks for Democratic candidates.
In an, um, interesting footnote, Kill Chain reports that following his tiny margin of victory over Abrams, Kemp appointed as his chief of staff a lobbyist for ES&S, which makes the voting machines used in Georgia.
Is all of this just a lot of paranoia, or a partisan conspiracy theory? You’ll be hard-pressed to believe that by the end of Kill Chain. The documentary convincingly makes its case that our votes are being systematically imperiled from within and without. And worse, that measures that could fix the problem — including switching the nation’s many, computer-controlled voting procedures to ones with auditable paper ballots — aren’t being taken.
Kill Chain reminds viewers that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked votes on the Secure Elections Act and four similar bipartisan bills designed to address these glaring, exploitable flaws in our voting system.
“I don’t see how they explain not passing a bill to protect our election equipment,” Senator Amy Klobuchar says in the documentary. Yeah. It makes you wonder about a Congress that’s in control of what gets fixed in our country, and what does not.
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