MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s foray into vote-by-app could signal the beginning of a new age of voter participation; or it could lead to calamitous consequences hitherto unseen in the democratic experiment.
It’s a wide chasm, sure — so says Dr. Saiph Savage, an assistant professor and Director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at West Virginia University.
“In cyber security, you have to have constant awareness,” she said. “That’s just how it is when you’re working in that field that we can not sleep. We need to be constantly, constantly, constantly alert.”
Dr. Savage was a bit less dramatic than that in describing the current landscape of voting, technology, and the cross-section where they might eventually meet and merge. She said there are two areas in vital need of protection — the hardware and software that now actually run elections is perhaps the most obvious. But, echoing comments made by WV Secretary of State Mac Warner earlier this year, she sees the harm of full-blown misinformation campaigns just as clearly in the cyber security forum of electoral warfare.
“I think it’s the same thing for misinformation.”
Concerns over the safety and integrity of elections aside, Savage said the opportunity that existed to improve access for certain voters — particularly overseas, military absentee, and rural — was a tough one to ignore. These concerns could be addressed through apps like Voatz, which West Virginia will test later this year for active military absentee voters.
Savage wouldn’t address specifically which groups would eventually make good use of blockchain voting, which operates using the same technology as bitcoin, when the concept evolves beyond a testing stage. She does believe, at least partially, the potential exists for blockchain voting to become part of the regular electoral process.
“Blockchain technology has a larger cost because of all the infrastructure that goes behind it,” Savage said. “I think that we need to study a little bit more about in what cases it really makes sense to put in this blockchain technology at the national level.”
Voatz and other systems like it could potentially address a glaring weakness in the future of election security: internal and external cyber attacks. Admittedly, only two systems in the entire country were penetrated by hackers during the 2016 general election. But, as Savage pointed out, attempts are daily. The Democratic National Committee reported last week to the FBI they believed another attempt at hacking their system was made externally.
The key, according to Savage, is that these hacks aren’t about changing votes that have already cast. Rather, they’re about altering votes or voting patterns before polls open on Election Day.
“They’re targeting us in a new way,” Savage said. “We have to be constantly alert and also constantly learning about how we as citizens can keep safe and also develop tools to empower citizens to not trap into these misinformation campaigns and keep our elections safe.”
Misinformation can come in so many ways — memes on social media, internet trolling, websites that appear journalistic in nature but that offer a clear partisan bias are all at least part of that problem.
“Currently, large campaigns have started to emerge that have tried to mobilize large minority groups to vote a particular way or maybe even not vote to really sway the election in a certain direction,” Savage said. “A lot of the times, they’re building off of propaganda that is the sharing of information that is not necessarily true.”
Savage said campaigns like that almost certainly have an impact on the electoral process. What researches still don’t know is precisely how to quantify that effect.
“Since we don’t even know, for instance, completely how they are operating, it can be very hard to address those problems,” she said. “In terms of, let’s say, these hackers, it can be easier maybe to enter into social media because it’s a new continent. It’s a new realm. Fighting them is going to be hard.”
Savage and other researchers at WVU have been attempting to answer that question, but first are working on research that showcases how misinformation campaigns may function.
In the short- to medium-term, that presents a different problem. The misinformation campaigns, Savage said, can change how people think and operate without any clear indication of how to stop or reverse their effects.
“You’re really moving people’s minds,” Savage said. “You might even be able to change their behavior long-term, not just for a particular election. That could be pretty scary. We don’t know as well how those persuasive campaigns might change people’s behavior long-term.”
She added: “The damage might, longer-term, be more harmful.”
That’s why, even with minute-to-minute concerns over the potential for the hacking of electoral databases, Savage is more primarily focused on the long-term havoc misinformation campaigns can incite.
“Convincing a person, swinging a person’s view is very hard,” she said. “It becomes, suddenly, uncomfortable because you have a cognitive dissonance where you want to continue accepting the things you believe. The process is much harder, once you have entered that bubble, to pull you back.”