Voting machines and other devices that count and store votes are probably not connected to the Internet. But they can be linked to what is known as sneakernet, a jargon that refers to the way information is transferred electronically, i.e. physically, from one place to another.
On Tuesday, election officials in many parts of the country will extract election data from thumb sized USB flash drives and send it manually to the central offices to map and report the results. Election experts have stated that these storage media, when used properly, offer a much safer way of exchanging data than the Internet.
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It’s a classic sneakernet, said Charles Stewart III, professor of political science at MIT and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology project. At the end of election night, some polling stations could end up in a dustbin full of USB keys, he said, so as not to contaminate the car collecting the results.
Although voting in the United States has long been and still is a laborious process, much of the tabulation, reporting and auditing process has been and continues to be carried out digitally, often using specialized software and air-conditioned or intentionally disconnected computers to prevent hacker attacks.
The USB sticks are here. When ballots are processed by a scanning device, the USB stick can be used to transfer the digital number of votes to a central computer that integrates the number of votes from all scanning devices.
When voters went to the polls on Tuesday to decide on the next president of the United States, some states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were already in long queues. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Pictures
It’s a good habit not to connect the main computer to the internet. As a result, the USB keys are also used to send the general count of votes to another computer connected to the Internet to publish the election results the day before.
The argument is that there’s enough data to do it electronically, said Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science at the University of South Carolina serving on the Richland County Electoral Council. – If you do it electronically on USB sticks that you know you won’t get anywhere except where you think they’re going, then that’s a reasonable approach.
Richland County will probably use about 150 flash drives on election night, he said. They are transported by the scanners of the various polling stations to the monitored polling station, where the results are collected.
Los Angeles County, the largest constituency in the country, also uses USB flash drives, but only in an operations center. Paper ballots are transported from their locations to these locations and scanned. These scanners are connected to the internal network of tabulation computers, and with the help of USB sticks the voice data is sent from there to the reporting computers that publish the results.
After scanning the paper ballots in the counting center, the results are transferred via a fully secure USB key and an audit trail (such as double storage and recording) from a computer connected to our internal network (air/closed layer) to a computer connected to another network that shares the results, according to a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Registry/employee in an email.
Rob Bathurst, CTO of Digitalware Inc, a cybersecurity company, says USB stickers pose a threat to cyber security. USB Flash Drives purchased from retailers must be clean because they come directly from the factories. But when they are connected to a computer, malicious programs, such as ransom programs, can be implanted on the hard drive.
Colorado’s election officials are working to avoid such weaknesses, said Hilary Rudi, deputy chief election officer in the Colorado state secretary’s office. The state provides new disposable or specially encrypted USB flash drives for all districts that transfer election data in the same way as Los Angeles County. We have rules that require disposable or erasable media to be used to pass on this information, Mrs Rudi said.
Election Systems & Software LLC is one of the leading voting equipment suppliers in the United States. According to the company, about 1,600 counties use voting machines, and more than 90 percent of scanners use encrypted removable USB flash drives.
ES&S stated that customers only use industrial USB flash drives manufactured in the United States by Poway, a California-based company of Delkin Devices Inc. No other USB stick works on the ES&S dialers.
USB Flash Drives simplify the process of communicating unofficial election results, said Barbara Simons, Chairman of the Board of Proven Voting and former Chairman of the Computer Association.
But she said that any electronic method can lead to errors or abuses, such as software errors that allow candidate A to get the vote when he switches to candidate B. That’s why it was important to check paper documents as part of this process.
We can’t rely on computers alone. We need handwritten ballots, systems for disabled voters, a strong chain of command and post-election verification, she said.
-Sara Castellanos and John McCormick contributed to this article. -Sara Castellanos and John McCormick.
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