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Jake Braun discusses the Voting Village at DEF CON

The Voting Village at DEF CON 26 expanded its scope to test every aspect of election security that it could. Organizer Jake Braun discusses how it went and what's next.

Election security continues to be a hot topic, as the 2018 midterm elections draw closer. So, the Voting Village...

at DEF CON 26 in Las Vegas wanted to re-create and test every aspect of an election.

Jake Braun, CEO of Cambridge Global Advisors, based in Arlington, Va., and one of the main organizers of the DEF CON Voting Village, discussed the pushback the event has received and how he hopes the event can expand in the future.

What were the major differences between what the Voting Village had this year compared to last year?

Jake Braun: The main difference is it's way bigger. And we've got, end to end, the voting infrastructure. We've got voter registration, a list of voters in the state of Ohio that are in a cyber range that's basically like a county clerk's network. Cook County, Illinois, their head guy advised us on how to make it realistic [and] make it like his network. We had that, but we didn't have the list of voters last year.

That's the back end of the voter process with the voter infrastructure process. And then we've got machines. We've got some new machines and accessories and all this stuff.

Then, on the other end, we've got the websites. This is the last piece of the election infrastructure that announces the results. And so, obviously, we've got the kids hacking the mock websites.

What prompted you to make hacking the mock websites an event for the kids in R00tz Asylum?

Braun: It was funny. I was at [RSA Conference], and we've been talking for a long time about, how do we represent this vulnerability in a way that's not a waste of time? Because the guys down in the [Voting Village], hacking websites is not interesting to them. They've been doing it for 20 years, or they've known how to do it for 20 years. But this is the most vulnerable part of the infrastructure, because it's [just] a website. You can cause real havoc.

I mean, the Russians -- when they hacked the Ukrainian website and changed it to show their candidate won, and the Ukrainians took it down, fortunately, they took it down before anything happened. But then, Russian TV started announcing their candidate won. Can you imagine if, in November 2020, the Florida and Ohio websites are down, and Wolf Blitzer is sitting there on CNN saying, 'Well, you know, we don't really know who won, because the Florida and Ohio websites are down,' and then RT -- Russian Television -- starts announcing that their preferred candidate won? It would be chaos.

Anyway, I was talking through this with some people at [RSA Conference], and I was talking about how it would be so uninteresting to do it in the real village or in the main village. And the guy [I was talking to said], 'Oh, right. Yeah. It's like child's play for them.'

I was like, 'Exactly, it's child's play. Great idea. We'll give it to R00tz.' And so, I called up Nico [Sell], and she was like, 'I love it. I'm in.' And then, the guys who built it were the Capture the Packet guys, who are some of the best security people in the planet. I mean, Brian Markus does security for ... Aerojet Rocketdyne, one of the top rocket manufacturers in the world. He sells to [Department of Defense], [Department of Homeland Security] and the Australian government. So, I mean, he is more competent than any election official we have.

The first person to get in was an 11-year-old girl, and she got in in 10 minutes. Totally took over the website, changed the results and everything else.

How did it go with the Ohio voter registration database?

Braun: The Secretaries of State Association criticized us, [saying], 'Oh, you're making it too easy. It's not realistic,' which is ridiculous. In fact, we're protecting the voter registration database with this Israeli military technology, and no one has been able to get in yet. So, it's actually probably the best protected list of voters in the country right now.

Have you been able to update the other machines being used in the Voting Village?

Braun: Well, a lot of it is old, but it's still in use. The only thing that's not in use is the WinVote, but everything else that we have in there is in use today. Unlike other stuff, they don't get automatic updates on their software. So, that's the same stuff that people are voting on today.

Have the vendors been helpful at all in providing more updated software or anything?

Braun: No. And, of course, the biggest one sent out a letter in advance to DEF CON again this year saying, 'It's not realistic and it's unfair, because they have full access to the machines.'

Do people think these machines are kept in Fort Knox? I mean, they are in a warehouse or, in some places, in small counties, they are in a closet somewhere -- literally. And, by the way, Rob Joyce, the cyber czar for the Trump administration who's now back at NSA [National Security Agency], in his talk [this year at DEF CON, he basically said], if you don't think that our adversaries are doing exactly this all year so that they know how to get into these machines, your head is insane.

The thing is that we actually are playing by the rules. We don't steal machines. We only get them if people donate them to us, or if we can buy them legally somehow. The Russians don't play by the rules. They'll just go get them however they want. They'll steal them or bribe people or whatever.

They could also just as easily do what you do and just to get them secondhand.

Braun: Right. They're probably doing that, too.

Is there any way to test these machines in a way that would be acceptable to the manufacturers and U.S. government?

Braun: The unfortunate thing is that, to our knowledge, the Voting Village is still the only public third-party inspection -- or whatever you want to call it -- of voting infrastructure.

The unfortunate thing is that the only time this is done publicly by a third party is when it's done by us. And that's once a year for two and a half days. This should be going on all year.
Jake BraunCEO of Cambridge Global Advisors

The vendors and others will get pen testing done periodically for themselves, but that's not public. All these things are done, and they're under [nondisclosure agreement]. Their customers don't know what vulnerabilities they found and so on and so forth.

So, the unfortunate thing is that the only time this is done publicly by a third party is when it's done by us. And that's once a year for two and a half days. This should be going on all year with all the equipment, the most updated stuff and everything else. And, of course, it's not.

Have you been in contact with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as they are in the process of writing new voting machine guidelines?

Braun: Yes. This is why DEF CON is so great, because everybody is here. I was just talking to them yesterday, and they were like, 'Hey, can you get us the report as soon as humanly possible? Because we want to take it into consideration as we are putting together our guidelines.' And they said they used our report last year, as well.

How have the election machines fared against the Voting Village hackers this year?

Braun: Right, of course, they were able to get into everything. Of course, they're finding all these new vulnerabilities and all this stuff. 

The greatest thing that I think came out of last year was that the state of Virginia wound up decommissioning the machine that [the hackers] got into in two minutes remotely. They decommissioned that and got rid of the machine altogether. And it was the only state that still had it. And so, after DEF CON, they had this emergency thing to get rid of it before the elections in 2017.

What's the plan for the Voting Village moving forward?

Braun: We'll do the report like we did last year. Out of all the guidelines that have come out since 2016 on how to secure election infrastructure, none of them talk about how to better secure your reporting websites or, since they are kind of impossible to secure, what operating procedures you should have in place in case they get hacked.

So, we're going to include that in the report this year. And that will be a big addition to the overall guidelines that have come out since 2016.

And then, next year, I think, it's really just all about, what else can we get our hands on? Because that will be the last time that any of our findings will be able to be implemented before 2020, which is, I think, when the big threat is.

A DEF CON spokesperson said that most of the local officials that responded and are attending have been from Democratic majority counties. Why do you think that is?

Braun: That's true, although [Neal Kelley, chief of elections and registrar of voters for] Orange County, attended. Orange County is pretty Republican, and he is a Republican.

But I think it winds up being this functionally odd thing where urban areas are generally Democratic, but because they are big, they have a bigger tax base. So then, the people who run them have more money to do security and hire security people. So, they kind of necessarily know more about this stuff.

Whereas if you're in Allamakee County, Iowa, with 10,000 people, the county auditor who runs the elections there, that guy or gal -- I don't know who it is -- but they are both the IT and the election official and the security person and the whatever. You're just not going to get the specialized stuff, you know what I mean?

Do you have any plans to try to boost attendance from smaller counties that might not be able to afford sending somebody here or plans on how to get information to them?

Braun: Well, that's why we do the report. This year, we did a mailing of 6,600 pieces of mail to all 6,600 election officials in the country and two emails and 3,500 live phone calls. So, we're going to keep doing that.
 
And that's the other thing: We just got so much more engagement from local officials. We had a handful come last year. We had several dozen come this year. None of them were public last year. This year, we had a panel of them speaking, including DHS [Department of Homeland Security].

So, that's a big difference. Despite the stupid letter that the Secretary of State Association sent out, a lot of these state and local folks are embracing this.

And it's not like we think we have all the answers. But you would think if you were in their position and with how cash-strapped they are and everything, that they would say, 'Well, these guys might have some answers. And if somebody's got some answers, I would love to go find out about those answers.'

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