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Oct 5, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Legal battles in swing states could reshape the election

 

Joseph Marks


with Tonya Riley

A crush of lawsuits in key swing states is boosting uncertainty as Election Day approaches and as absentee and early votes are already being cast in some states. 

The lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere are raising the chances of last-minute changes that could confuse voters and poll workers and damage confidence in the election’s outcome.

They’re also ramping up tension as President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has prompted increased concerns that foreign adversaries will be emboldened to interfere in the election. Trump himself, meanwhile, has continued without evidence to question the election’s legitimacy, and the FBI and Justice Department are increasingly concerned about violence disrupting voting, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report

And there's no guarantee things will ease up after Election Day. 

Indeed, legal battles could proliferate while the nation awaits vote counts that could take days or weeks to complete in some states. Election experts are already sounding alarms about the potential for post-election lawsuits based on the divergent handling of ballots by different counties in the same state, such as different standards for rejecting mail ballots or different varied processes for verifying signatures. 

“States that wish to avoid becoming objects of legal battles in the coming election must do their utmost to avoid these differences,” Alex Yasinsac and Douglas W. Jones, election security experts and computer science professors at the University of South Alabama and the University of Iowa respectively, wrote in a Des Moines Register op ed

Some legal battles could have major consequences for how many votes count in the election. 

Here’s a rundown:

In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court plans to weigh in on whether Republican legislators can challenge a federal court ruling allowing the state to continue counting mail ballots through Nov. 9. If Republicans are successful, they could block thousands of votes from being counted that were mailed on or before Election Day but didn’t arrive until later. 

In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign is suing to force election officials to allow Trump supporters in Philadelphia to observe at election offices that aren’t official polling locations but where residents can register to vote and fill out mail ballots. 

Trump complained about his supporters being blocked from those locations during last week’s presidential debate claiming that “bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.” The lawsuit echoes Trump's claims, stating, “Bad things are happening in Philadelphia…While transparency and accountability are hallmarks of election integrity, the actions of Philadelphia election officials to date have undermined election integrity by shrouding the casting of ballots in secrecy.”

But critics fear the observers will end up intimidating people from registering to vote or collecting mail ballots. 

In Texas, voting rights advocates are suing in federal court to reverse an order last week from Gov. Greg Abbott (R) that limits election officials to offering just one drop-off location for absentee ballots per county. 

Abbott claimed the restriction was necessary for ballot security, but critics say there’s no reason counties can’t maintain multiple secure drop-off locations and that the order unnecessarily burdens voters who will have to travel long distances to return their ballots. An anti-Trump conservative group called Republicans for the Rule of Law called the order “a brazen offense against fair elections.”

In Georgia, election integrity activists are pushing a court to block the use of controversial voting machines that required a last-minute software update, as I reported last week. The judge in that case also recently ordered polling locations in Georgia to keep paper backups of voter rolls in case electronic pollbooks aren’t working during early voting or on Election Day. 

A lawsuit filed by voters living abroad, meanwhile, may be giving the most heartburn to election security advocates. 

That suit asks officials in seven states to allow voters abroad to cast their ballots electronically, Kim Zetter reports for the Guardian. That’s despite warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and election security experts that there’s effectively no way to ensure votes cast by email or other electronic methods are secure against hacking. 

The main problem: With a completely paperless transaction there’s no permanent record like a physical ballot that voters can look at to ensure their votes were recorded correctly and officials can use in auditing.

The list of states in the lawsuit include some where the presidential race is tight, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Texas. 

Ballots from military members and other Americans abroad typically make up a very small percentage of votes in any election. But with concerns about election integrity running high and the race between Trump and  Democratic challenger Joe Biden tight in some states, any uncertainty could lead to major problems or even fights about the election’s outcome. 

“A last-minute change like this for something that is highly controversial to begin with is not a good idea,” Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Kim. “It’s a general principle of election security that you don’t want to be making huge changes in the technology for how people vote right before an election, and that’s certainly the case for submitting ballots over the Internet.” 

The keys

Confusion over Trump's medical status fuels online conspiracies. 

Nearly a dozen conspiracy theories or fake posts connected to Trump's positive covid-19 diagnosis have gone viral on social media since Friday, Jane Lytvynenko at BuzzFeed News found. The fake and misleading images include a video edited to make it appear as though Joe Biden had covid-19 before the debate. (The former vice president has tested negative multiple times).   

To respond to the onslaught of misinformation, tech companies including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter launched command centers similar to the war rooms they use to address election misinformation, Nancy Scola at Politico reports

In many instances, the companies took steps to make misleading content harder for users to find, rather than removing it entirely. Facebook labeled a series of viral claims that Trump had launched doomsday planes after his diagnosis as “missing context.” (U.S. Strategic Command confirmed the planes were a part of an existing mission and unrelated to Trump's diagnosis.)

The diagnosis also fueled posts by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely suggests Trump is fighting a “deep state” of Democrats and celebrities who commit heinous crimes. Many of the posts suggest Trump's diagnosis date holds a secret message and the disease is fake, EJ Dickinson at Rolling Stone reports.

Trump’s diagnosis sits at the convergence of coronavirus misinformation and political misinformation that platforms have struggled to police, experts told The Technology 202.

A software vendor that aids coronavirus vaccine research was hit with a ransomware attack.

The attack locked eResearch Technology out of its computer systems and made its software unusable for clients, Nicole Perlroth at the New York Times reports

The company took its systems offline as a precaution and is working with cybersecurity experts to get them back online. Drew Bustos, ERT's vice president of marketing, declined to say whether the company paid hackers a ransom. 

The hackers did not appear to access any clinical trial data, but the attack underscores the risks of cyber espionage facing health-care companies on the front lines of the pandemic. The FBI and DHS accused Chinese spies of trying to hack coronavirus research in May.

Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson both said their coronavirus trials were unaffected. Bristol Myers Squibb said the impact was limited.

The Trump administration is appealing a ruling that halted its WeChat ban. 

The evidence included two papers that described that espionage and Beijing's control over companies such as WeChat's owner Tencent, Katy reports. 

The White House alleges Tencent could be compelled to share U.S. user data with the Chinese government. Tencent disputes the White House's claims.

A federal judge granted an injunction on the ban last month, siding with WeChat users who sued the government claiming that the ban violated their free speech.

Cyber insecurity

A security bug in the Grindr dating app could have exposed troves of users’ personal information. 

The flaw in the LGBTQ dating app could have given hackers access to users’ photos, messages, sexual orientation and HIV status, TechCrunch's Zack Whittaker reports.

Researchers were able to access the information just by knowing the user’s email address. 

Grindr fixed the flaw and said it's launching a new bug bounty program to incentivize researchers to find new flaws going forward.

More cybersecurity news:

Daybook

Secure log off

Remember the debate? That was less than a week ago.

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