It was December 2000 and I was having lunch with coworkers at a sports bar in Virginia.
All eyes were glued to televisions where the Florida recount was taking place. As officials displayed pregnant and dimpled chads while debating voters’ intentions, I said that in the age of technology it was ludicrous to depend on inadequately punched holes; the voting process should be automated. But as soon as the words escaped my mouth, we were staring wide-eyed at one another with the same incredulous thoughts.
My coworkers and I were part of a team of programmers and auditors searching for ways to entrap cybercriminals. It was the most enjoyable job I’d ever had, because we were paid to think like criminals, concoct ways to defraud the government and then develop systems to detect anyone else that acted on those ideas. We were assigned to Medicare at the time, our efforts recovering millions of dollars and sending cybercriminals to prison. It was the ideal mindset to understand exactly how anyone — even a foreign government — could hack a computerized election.
By 2017, the CIA, FBI, NSA and ODNI concluded Russia had meddled in the 2016 election. Much of the news has centered on Russia’s use of social media, advertising and propaganda that divided Americans and fueled dissent. But anyone that believes Russia began in 2016 doesn’t understand their long-term game plan.
My think-tank coworkers and I developed strategies to rig elections, including automatically erasing the programming after results had been altered. The perpetrators would begin on a smaller scale such as local elections, which are less likely to have security such as physically securing electronic voting machines. Some of the machines contain wireless chips, which meant one unsecured machine could be hacked and infect the others through satellite technology. It’s the same process used to update cable and satellite television boxes or operating systems on laptops and mobile devices.
Once the hacker has tested the process, they’d move up the ladder to governors, senators and representatives. As their tampering placed desired candidates into position, it would have the added benefit of creating a foundation for the overthrow of American democracy, ensuring when their preferred presidential candidate was elected there would be less chance of significant oversight or pushback against policies that only a decade ago would have been considered treasonous.
As I began writing “The China Conspiracy,” a novelization of foreign government tampering in American elections, several states voted to discontinue paper backups. This removed the ability for the voter to verify their vote was accurately recorded. It also meant recounts were meaningless; once the tabulation was logged, it would always provide the same result.
“The China Conspiracy” was released in 2003 as researchers raised the alarm about potential election hacking. In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers demonstrated how machines could be hacked and results altered through a simple virus in just four minutes. Princeton University did it in one minute flat. There were even live demonstrations where cameras captured individuals voting for George Washington — but Benedict Arnold was recorded instead.
I thought during the 2016 presidential election I’d gotten it wrong. I’d assumed China would interfere with our election because they pose a much larger threat. But during a worldwide threats briefing held before Congress on Feb. 13, 2018, the NSA, FBI, CIA and ODNI heads testified China was as much of a threat as Russia regarding cyber warfare and election tampering. As a result, Verizon and AT&T discontinued selling the Chinese-made Huawei phones, which could be used for hacking and spying. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued a June 7, 2018, press release stating ZTE “poses a significant threat to our national security.” And CIA Chief Mike Pompeo stated the Chinese have a “much bigger footprint” than Russia to carry out covert activities. Hacking and election interference go back at least a decade.
Congressional leaders warn of similar attempts expected in 2018 and 2020, to include disrupting websites, hacking emails, changing results on hacked servers, targeted leaks, fake news, and sowing dissension and hatred — the latter turning Americans against one another. It doesn’t stop with us but targets other democracies across Europe and beyond.
In writing “The China Conspiracy,” it was not the first time I had written about crimes that later took place, but it might be the most frightening.
p.m.terrell is the internationally acclaimed, award-winning author of more than 20 books, including two series set in Lumberton. For information about Book ‘Em, visit bookemnc.org. For information about terrell, visit pmterrell.com.