A Bipartisan Group of U.S. Senators Has a Plan to Secure Future Elections

Looking Ahead

Not long after 2000’s tumultuous presidential election, the United States began adopting electronic/paperless voting systems. Almost immediately, experts voiced concerns about the security of these voting machines, and the issue came to a head in 2016, when reports of Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election surfaced.

While investigators didn’t find any evidence of external interference with voting machines, they did conclude that voting systems were probed prior to the 2016 election. To protect future U.S. elections against interference from outside agents and foreign governments, a bipartisan group of six senators has introduced the Secure Elections Act.

Secure Elections Act
Your voting decision should count in a secure voting system. Image Credit: Geralt / Pixabay

“Russia attacked the very heart of our democracy when they interfered in the 2016 election. With the 2018 elections just around the corner, Russia will be back to interfere again,” co-sponsor Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) stated in a press release.

“We must act now to fortify our election system against attacks by foreign powers in a way that is smart and allows for effective communication and information-sharing between election and intelligence officials,” said Harris.

Flaws in the System

As election security is an issue that affects all parties equally, the bill stands a better than average chance of passing, and if it does, it will address two major flaws in the U.S. elections system.

The first is the paperless voting systems themselves.

“Computer scientists were worried about them from the start…they were being rolled out too fast and without effective security standards,” Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, told Ars Technica. “In every single case, when a machine was brought into the lab and studied by qualified researchers, the result was the discovery of significant vulnerabilities that could allow the machines to be compromised with malicious software that could potentially steal votes.”

States are not blind to these faults, and some have already started to move away from using paperless voting systems. Unfortunately, others have not been able to make the move due to budget constraints. To that end, the Secure Elections Act would give states grants they could use to replace these systems.

The second is how states conduct, or don’t conduct, post-election audits.

Recounts are often only conducted if an election outcome is very close, but if every election, especially major elections, ended with a review and an audit, it would drastically improve security while also removing any stigma associated with recounts. The Secure Elections Act would encourage states to adopt more sophisticated statistical procedures to verify ballots, ensuring they don’t count too many or too few.

The bill would also create an advisory committee staffed by election security experts who would develop a set of election auditing standards. States willing to improve their election procedures following those standards could apply for money to help them do so. If states were forced to recount large numbers of ballots due to a particularly close initial result, they could be reimbursed for their efforts through an insurance pool established by the bill.

While this legislation is ambitious, voting security is of the utmost importance for a democratic system. All citizens deserve to have their votes accurately counted, and the Secure Elections Act could help ensure that that’s the case for the 2018 elections and beyond.

The post A Bipartisan Group of U.S. Senators Has a Plan to Secure Future Elections appeared first on Futurism.

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Google’s ‘Year in Search’ highlights solar eclipse, natural disasters, elections, and technology

Google has a yearly tradition of publishing the most-searched terms and phrases, aptly-named the ‘Year in Search.’ Earlier today, the company revealed the top searches of 2017 with a new video and a detailed Trends page.

The above video highlights many of the top searches over the past year, including North Korea, several natural disasters, the total solar eclipse, the Las Vegas Shooting, and the ‘Me Too’ movement. Google made similar videos for 2016, 2015, 2014, and so on.

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Google’s ‘Year in Search’ highlights solar eclipse, natural disasters, elections, and technology was written by the awesome team at Android Police.

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Governments in 30 countries manipulated media online to silence critics, sow unrest or influence elections

The latest report on internet freedom by Freedom House finds online discourse in the United States is suffering.

It isn’t just Russia that’s spreading disinformation on Facebook, Google and Twitter in a bid to stir political unrest and silence critics around the globe.

A new report from Freedom House released Tuesday found that governments in 30 countries — not just the Kremlin, but also the regimes in Turkey, Venezuela and the Philippines — are now “mass producing their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favor.”

In Sudan, for example, the government maintains a virtual cyber army that has infiltrated Facebook, WhatsApp and other services in order to spread its leaders’ messages. In Venezuela, government forces “regularly used manipulated footage to disseminate lies about opposition protesters or the media, creating confusion” ahead of its last election.

The watchdog found that these efforts to manipulate information online — by governments or other forces — may have affected 18 countries’ elections, “damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate.” That included the U.S., where Russian-sponsored trolls fueled conflict around controversial debates like immigration, gun control and gay rights.

“The use of paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda was pioneered by China and Russia but has now gone global,” said Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz in a statement. “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The conclusions came as part of Freedom House’s annual evaluation of global internet freedom, which found — once again — that government restrictions on their citizens’ internet use generally is on the rise.

Their report focused its efforts on 65 countries, studying their approach to online discussion and regulation between June 2016 and May 2017, and Freedom House awarded each government an internet-freedom score.

The lowest rating still belongs to China. Freedom House once again lamented the country’s historic, unrivaled limits on online speech, its penchant for hacking opponents and media organizations alike, and its willingness to imprison critics of Beijing’s leaders. Elsewhere, governments pursued their own new restrictions on online activity. For example, nine countries over the past year sought to block live video streaming for the first time, often to “halt real-time coverage of antigovernment demonstrations.”

In the U.S., Freedom House also sounded a note of alarm: It concluded that internet freedom in the U.S. had declined since the previous year, due in no small part to Russia’s election meddling.

Before and after Election Day, Kremlin-tied trolls had purchased ads and created profiles on Facebook, Google and Twitter, seeking to create chaos, rile up protesters and shift media coverage away from then-candidate Donald Trump. Those efforts are now the subject of scrutiny on Capitol Hill — and soul-searching in Silicon Valley — as lawmakers look to prevent Russia or another foreign power from meddling in U.S. politics ahead of the next election in 2018.

“While the online environment in the United States remained vibrant and diverse, the prevalence of disinformation and hyperpartisan content had a significant impact,” Freedom House found.

The watchdog also attributed its new skepticism about U.S. internet freedom to heightened harassment of American journalists online, not to mention efforts by the Trump administration, including a controversial — and quickly abandoned — attempt to unmask some of its prominent critics on Twitter.

Freedom House said internet freedom in the U.S. could be threatened even further as a result of the government’s ongoing attempt to undo its existing net neutrality rules. The regulations require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

At the same time, Freedom House also offered a subtle warning to regulators — in the U.S. and elsewhere — who are considering new laws in an attempt to thwart misinformation or other online ills.

By the watchdog’s estimate, 14 countries seeking to stop malicious bots and other nefarious activities on the web introduced rules over the past year that “actually restricted internet freedom,” perhaps unwittingly. That includes Germany, which instituted a new law in June 2017 that requires the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to take down content flagged as offensive in a way that “lacks judicial oversight.”

“When trying to combat online manipulation from abroad, it is important for countries not to overreach,” said Sanja Kelly, who oversees the production of the Freedom of the Net report, in a statement.

“The solution to manipulation and disinformation lies not in censoring websites but in teaching citizens how to detect fake news and commentary,” Kelly continued. “Democracies should ensure that the source of political advertising online is at least as transparent online as it is offline.”


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A group of Silicon Valley tech experts is raising money to help 500 Democrats win elections in 2018

Sam Altman, Chris Kelly and others are involved

A group of well-wired tech engineers is trying to bring a Silicon Valley sensibility to hundreds of hardscrabble Democratic campaigns around the country next year — and they’re tapping the likes of Sam Altman, Chris Kelly and Chamath Palihapitiya for help.*

The organization is called Tech for Campaigns — and the effort, profiled by Recode earlier this May, seeks to arm digitally deprived state and federal office-seekers with tools to connect with voters in the social media age. That comes in the form of placing volunteers, about 3,000 and counting, with candidates who need help on data analytics, paid ads, social strategy on Facebook and more.

Already, Tech for Campaigns has aided an aspiring Democratic member of Congress in Montana, and it’s deployed its volunteers to support dozens of office-seekers in Virginia. Ultimately, in Montana, Rob Quist, lost his special-election race. And in Virginia, the state is set to head to the ballot box next month to determine the composition of their local legislature and governor’s mansion.

But Tech for Campaigns believes the Democratic Party’s tech needs remain legion — and they’re aiming to grow beyond their current slate of 50 races to 500 in 2018. To do it, they’re relying on some star-studded tech names for fundraising.

Their initial play is a crowdfunding campaign, an effort to raise $ 250,000 that grants donors access to live-streamed fireside chats with important figures in progressive and Democratic politics. Joining the effort are Altman, the leader of Y Combinator; Kelly, the former general counsel of Facebook; and Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital.

Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia; Nathan Blecharczyk, the co-founder of Airbnb; and Maggie Hassan, the Democratic senator from New Hampshire, also are set to appear.

None of those deep-pocketed tech luminaries on its list have donated to the group — at least, for now. Instead, the goal at the moment is to grow support for the organization’s work beyond Silicon Valley and into states like North Carolina and Michigan, just in time for next year’s elections, according to Jessica Alter, the co-founder of Tech for Campaigns.

“We want Tech for Campaigns to be the digital arm for the left,” Alter said in an interview. “We realize there’s just an immense hole between what is happening in best-in-class tech and what is happening in politics, and that is especially true at the state level.”

To that end, Alter estimates “upwards of 70 percent” of its new goal — 500 campaigns next year — will be focused on state legislative races. Those battles may not be the stuff of sexy cable news segments or flashy attack ads. Oftentimes, they’re neglected by local voters in years when there isn’t a presidential candidate like Donald Trump on the ballot.

But some of these local state elections are critical: They help draw the invisible lines that determine federal congressional districts. And at the moment, 32 states’ legislatures are run by Republicans.

That’s why the Democrat-leaning Tech for Campaigns has scores of volunteers already on the ground in Virginia, a state where its House of Delegates might be up for grabs for the party in a matter of weeks — and one where its redistricting plan is the subject of current court disputes.

From here, Alter and the TFC team have sought to analyze other states that might be most likely to flip to Democratic control. That’s why they expect to set their sights on North Carolina and Michigan, two swing states even in normal years — when Trump isn’t influencing the ballot. With it, they’re refining what essentially amounts to a digital toolkit for campaigns — guides for how to study voters, reach them with targeted ads, understand the cosmology of Facebook and text voters to get to the polls.

It sounds like the stuff of simple, everyday marketing, but Alter — and many Democrats even outside of her orbit — agree that their own party is still ill-equipped to take advantage of the tools at their disposal.

“In the future we think that every campaign should have access to a digital team,” she said. “It’s 2017. American adults spend almost 6 hours a day online. And so, the idea you would have a field team and not a digital team is sort of crazy to me.”

*Recode exectuive editor Kara Swisher is participating in one of the private fireside chats as a moderator. She has not donated cash to Tech for Campaigns.


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Senate lawmakers fear future elections are at risk from Russian meddling

The Senate Intelligence Committee also urged Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify at a November 1 hearing.

Senate lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race warned on Wednesday that the United States remains susceptible to further election meddling and misinformation campaigns.

In doing so, though, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Republican Chairman Richard Burr and ranking Democratic Sen. Mark Warner — stressed at a joint press conference that they have many unresolved questions for Facebook, Google and Twitter, and they urged executives to testify at a hearing scheduled for November 1.

“The Russian intelligence service is determined, clever, and I recommend every campaign and every election official take this very seriously as we move into this November’s election,” Burr said.

The contest Burr referenced actually happens next month in Virginia, the state that his colleague, Warner, represents. “The Russian active measures did not end on Election Day 2016,” Warner affirmed.

For tech giants, meanwhile, the Senate’s chief investigators once again sounded alarms about the extent to which Russian forces purchased ads and created false accounts “that would drive interest toward stories or groups,” with the goal to “sow chaos and drive division in our country,” Warner said.

Neither Warner nor Burr addressed whether those accounts and advertisements are explicitly tied to the Trump campaign, and the committee made clear it would not be releasing copies of the information it’s obtained from tech giants. But, Warner emphasized: “We think it’s important the three companies we invited, Google, Twitter and Facebook, will appear in a public hearing.”

Spokespeople for Facebook, Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Wednesday.

So far, Facebook has uncovered roughly 470 profiles tied to Russian-backed sources. Those profiles purchased about 3,000 ads, now in lawmakers’ possession, which sought to stoke political unrest in the United States. Facebook estimates that approximately 10 million users in the United States saw the ads before and after Election Day.

Twitter, meanwhile, has found about 200 accounts with suspicious Russian ties. Google has not released any information about Kremlin activities on its advertising platform or other websites, like YouTube, though an investigation is ongoing. Snap has evaluated its platforms for potential misuse — and so far, it’s found nothing. And companies including Oath, formerly Yahoo, and Reddit, have provided scant details as to whether they’ve conducted internal investigations, or what they may have found.

In recent weeks, these tech companies have promised to harden their defenses against future election meddling. Facebook, for example, pledged 1,000 new hires devoted to monitoring ads and greater investments in machine-learning technology. And Twitter said it’s reviewing its own practices to prevent such disinformation campaigns from happening again.

At first, lawmakers lambasted the whole of Silicon Valley for failing to do more, and sooner, to combat Russia and other malefactors. Warner and others specifically have singled out Twitter for failing to perform an exhaustive search of its sales records for ads and accounts used by Kremlin agents.

On Wednesday, however, Warner seemed to moderate his town. He acknowledged that tech companies had come to understand the seriousness of the threats facing social media sites — and American voters. But the senator repeated his belief that there is still a great deal for Facebook, Google and Twitter to address to satisfy users and congressional investigators alike. That includes greater disclosure for ads so that “Americans can know if the source of that ad was generated by foreign entities,” he said at the press conference.

To that end, Warner and one of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, are expected to introduce new political transparency legislation in the coming days. The measure could require tech companies selling political ads to keep and publish copies of them for viewers to see. That would mimic a system already in place for similar political content that runs on television. So far, though, the proposal does not appear to have any Republican sponsors.

In the House, meanwhile, the chamber’s own intelligence committee is conducting a parallel probe of potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. That panel aims to hold its own hearing with Facebook, Google and Twitter in October, though it has not officially been scheduled.


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