Election Security Tested At Def Con

Aug 11, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the largest gatherings of hackers in the world is happening this weekend in Las Vegas. And one of the things they're hacking into is voting equipment. NPR's Miles Parks has more from DEF CON 27.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Alex (ph) and Ryan (ph) are seated with a bunch of other hackers around a piece of voting equipment that was used in Virginia last year. Like a lot of hackers here at DEF CON, they didn't feel comfortable giving their full names. They have unrelated full-time jobs. But right now, in their spare time, they're messing with the innards of democracy.

RYAN: Right now, we're trying to develop a way to remotely control the voting machine. So we're looking for a payload that would allow us to send commands across the Internet to the actual device.

PARKS: Election officials are quick to note that the scenario these hackers are working under - unlimited time, machine broken open, chords popping out, beer cans in their hands - they're nothing like a real Election Day. And there's still no evidence any votes were changed in the 2016 election or any election prior to that. But the hackers here still say it's important to do this kind of work. It lets people understand the equipment companies are providing since there are no rules to provide any sort of public disclosure. It's Alex's first time getting a look at the technology. And he hasn't been impressed.

ALEX: These systems crash at your Walmart scanning your groceries. And we're using those systems here to protect our democracy, which is a little bit unsettling (laughter). I wouldn't even use this to control a camera at my house or my toaster (laughter).

PARKS: And yet money for improvements hasn't come this year from Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted bringing election security legislation to the floor. He says he feels it's mostly up to the states and localities to protect themselves. But Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, still says there's a grave threat. He gave a keynote address this weekend at DEF CON.

RON WYDEN: I'll be damned that when we're up against the Russians and all their military and all their cybersecurity might, we're going to send out the county IT guy.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKS: After DEF CON is over, a report compiling all the new vulnerabilities that are found this year will be released. But with voting in primary elections starting in less than six months and with how long it takes to implement changes in the voting-equipment world, it's probably too late to fix those issues. Miles Parks, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.