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Hacking, Fear & Voting: Former NSA Director Speaks on Election Security

Below is the transcription of an interview conducted by David Cohen, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Techstars, the global platform for investment and innovation that connects entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations.

David interviewed Dr. Eric Haseltine on the security of our nation’s elections.

Dr. Eric Haseltine is an author, futurist and neuroscientist. He is former director of research at the National Security Agency, Executive Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering, Associate Director at CTO for National Intelligence at the Federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and a director of engineering at the Hughes Aircraft Company.

(view full interview here)

David Cohen: Eric, in addition to your credentials at the NSA, I understand you were a psychologist, we do our research here. I’d love to get your read on our national psyche right now, how it relates to voting and security and I’m wondering if there’s a connection and maybe why people might be resistant to online voting today?

Dr. Eric Haseltine: The way I would assess the national psyche right now when it comes to elections, is lack of trust, lack of trust that someone isn’t going to try to mess with the election as they did in 2016, and we’re hearing reports from the intelligence community and elsewhere that that’s going on right now. Lack of trust that the voting system is secure from other issues. And then there’s the issue of disease. If I go vote am I going to pick up a virus? So I think people are very nervous about voting. And there’s a lot of concern about trust, can you trust the system?

David Cohen: So from your background of directing research at the NSA, I’m sure you’ve been privy to lots of conversations about hacking. We saw the misinformation campaign, in some cases, attempts to hack our voter registration list in 2016. In every tech category from finance to healthcare, we’ve managed to develop a system for managing that risk. Based on your background and what you’ve witnessed across critical infrastructure like this. Do you think there’s a solution for voting?

Dr. Eric Haseltine: I do believe that electronic voting can be secure. There is no system including our nuclear launch codes that’s 100% bulletproof. The key that modern security acknowledges is to operate under the assumption that you’ve been compromised, so that you can detect it quickly, isolate it when it does happen, and fix it quickly. And that’s really state of the art. And because of my knowledge about how these things are done, I’ve seen it done, it works very well. And I don’t have any concerns at all that we can vote securely, and I would go so far as to say that electronic voting is probably more secure than the paper ballot or the kind of voting we have right now.

“I would go so far as to say that electronic voting is probably more secure than the paper ballot or the kind of voting we have right now.”

Dr. Eric Haseltine, Former Director of Research, NSA

David Cohen: Before we move on to anything else let’s talk about Iowa. You and I know that wasn’t really a voting app that caused all this stir, but it really scared people obviously.

Dr. Eric Haseltine: That wasn’t so much a voting app issue as it was a reporting of the votes issue, as to do we know what happened and will we ever know? Absolutely. It’s the same thing that happens when you have any failure. It’s a human element, at some point in the chain, a human didn’t set it up right, didn’t specify the right thing, didn’t operate it correctly. So people tend to focus in the electronic realm on the technology. But having been what you think of as a bad guy or a burglar in this space, what we always focused on to exploit a target was the human element. And that’s the piece that gets under recognized. So I can say without fear of contradiction, that the problem in Iowa and all the other problems that we’ve had, at their root is a human vulnerability.

David Cohen: It would be a lot easier if it weren’t for those pesky humans, I guess. And I always thought of the NSA as the good guys, I guess.

Dr. Eric Haseltine: Well, we always like to think of ourselves that way. We aren’t always painted that way in the press, we’re hackers for God and country I guess you could put it that way. But because we do that, and we’re the best in the world, and we go up against the best in the world, we know what can be done and what can’t be done, what can be guaranteed and what can’t be guaranteed, and that’s why I say that the state of the art right now is to say, this system sooner or later probably will be compromised in some way. How do we set it up so that when that happens, and if that happens, we’re still going to be okay?

David Cohen: You were an op ed recently that said we should continue to do these tests and pilot things around voting. There’s not as much time for pilots now though. So should every piece of tech be considered and my peers in Silicon Valley are coming together like crazy and there’s, as you say, tech for everything. So do we just need to jump in headfirst here given the situation?

Dr. Eric Haseltine: Yeah, if I were in charge, I would say let’s find the best one or two, get the best white hat hackers we can, attack the heck out of it. Really beat it up, find its holes and get it working as fast as possible. And continue to do that. That’s the thing about penetration testing and white hat exercises. They can’t stop once they’re done with the initial attack, they have to keep it up 24/7 actually.

David Cohen: Do you think that ever gets politicized where someone that’s just against online voting for whatever reason tries to create that lack of trust or do you think that that’s just the default state that we’re in and we’ve got to work through it?

Dr. Eric Haseltine: I absolutely think it’ll get politicized, how can it not, and after all it’s about politics. And clearly, there are some who really are not going to benefit from electronic voting. Without mentioning any names, one party historically is underrepresented at the polls, because people in that party have other life issues and they don’t get to the polls, for any number of reasons. If we lower the barrier to entry, so that anybody could vote really easily, I think it’s clear that one party is going to benefit over the other and you can just bet your bottom dollar that is going to get fought tooth and nail.

David Cohen: So what’s the counter argument there if you’re in that other party, why do you think that this is a thing we shouldn’t do?

Dr. Eric Haseltine: I think that If I were in that other party and I actually am in that other party, the way I would look at it is to say, this is an opportunity, not a threat. And the key is since it’s inevitable, sooner or later it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it let’s get out ahead of it and see how we can surf that wave rather than be drowned in that wave.

“[Electronic voting] is inevitable. Sooner or later it’s going to happen. Rather than fighting it let’s get out ahead of it and see how we can surf that wave rather than be drowned in that wave.”

Dr. Eric Haseltine, Former Director of Research, NSA

David Cohen: No one would know better than you, Eric, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Dr. Eric Haseltine: Well, you know what, it’s a really important subject I really appreciate being asked to weigh in.

Full Techstars interview viewable here.

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