With the threat of election result interference looming , the Iowa Democratic Party took steps to make Monday’s caucuses more technolog...
With the threat of election result interference looming, the Iowa Democratic Party took steps to make Monday’s caucuses more technologically secure with results that were robust.
Party officials even decided there was an app for that.
Unfortunately, there were issues with the app and instead of Democrats turning their focus toward the New Hampshire primary, to be held Feb. 11, there were still no returns Tuesday morning from Iowa.
The chaos is expected to have repercussions in the short term for the candidates who aren’t sure yet how they performed, and in the long term for the Iowa caucus process itself.
“I’d say there is going to be a real movement to change the order of primaries. I really do believe it and I never believed it before,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Des Moines Register.
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What’s this about an app used in the Iowa caucuses?
The Iowa Democratic Party, which had originally considered a virtual caucus, in which voters did not physically have to show up to be counted, opted to create a smartphone app to help caucus managers tabulate and transmit results – the end result being to get results released more quickly to the public.
The decision was set in motion before we learned about a “sweeping and systematic” Russian effort to undermine the presidential election process in 2016.
The Iowa Democratic Party has said the app was tested by an independent third party, but did not release too much information about it. That’s because top cybersecurity experts said releasing too much information about the app could result in the developer being targeted.
But that strategy opened the door for potential misuse of misinformation Ashlee Benge, threat researcher for Baltimore-headquartered cybersecurity firm ZeroFox. “This confusion could be exploited by candidates or others with an interest in a particular candidate, in order to perpetuate misinformation about a candidate’s success or lack thereof,” she told USA TODAY. “This could ultimately be used to influence voter opinion in future votes and potentially sway election results.”
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So what was the issue?
Early in the evening, party officials began reporting that some precinct officials could not log into the app. One issue apparently was confusion with PIN numbers, reported KCRG, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ABC television station.
Precinct chairwoman Ruth Thompson told KCRG that organizers had problems trying to download and test the app. “We came to a consensus not to use it,” said Thompson, who chaired a precinct at Lincoln High School in Des Moines.
Emily Duff, who volunteered as a captain for Bernie Sanders’ campaign Monday night, expressed concerns about the app before her caucus. Duff’s precinct in the gym at Hoover High School in Des Moines wound up reporting results manually, she said.
“People were having issues, so they ditched the app,” she said.
Precinct chairs did not have to use the app but could also tabulate results manually – a paper trail is included as a planned redundancy in the system – and call them into a hotline. But telephones were jammed, too.
“We understand that caucus chairs are attempting to – and, in many cases, failing to – report results telephonically to the party. These acute failures are occurring statewide,” wrote Dana Remus, general counsel for Biden for President, in a letter to the Iowa Democratic Party executive director Kevin Geiken and chairman Troy Price late Monday, saying the party’s new app and its backup phone hotline failed.
So did the app work or not?
Apparently, when the app was used to report results, not all of the data came through, a discrepancy officials noted Monday night, but could not explain at the time.
““As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data,” party chairman Troy Price said in a statement Tuesday morning. “We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”
The system’s redundant paper trail is being used to verify and calculate the results, he said. “While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld.”
Issues could likely be averted with “a digital disaster plan” including stages such as a pilot run and improved field testing and training, says Theresa Payton, who was chief information officer for the White House for President George W. Bush and is founder and CEO of Fortalice Solutions, a cybersecurity consulting firm headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.
“People are pointing at the app, but it’s not just the app. It’s all the processes when the app failed that didn’t work either,” said Payton, who has a book due to be published in April entitled “Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth.”
“There’s multiple failures that happened last night (in Iowa),” she said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to the technology team because it is always high stakes, but this was high stakes on another level.”
What’s this about Shadow and where did the app come from?
The app was created by a company called Shadow Inc., and issued by Jimmy Hickey of Shadow Inc., metadata of the program that the Des Moines Register analyzed Tuesday shows. A LinkedIn profile for James Hickey lists him as COO of Shadow and an engineering manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Two other former Clinton campaign workers, former Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis, co-founded Shadow.
Company officials did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment. However, the company’s Twitter account had a comment Tuesday afternoon: “We sincerely regret the delay in reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused the candidates, their campaigns, and the Democratic caucus-goers.”
The New York Times has reported that ACRONYM – a Democratic nonprofit founded in 2017 “to educate, inspire, register, and mobilize voters,” according to its website – supported Shadow. Its founder and CEO is Tara McGowan, a former journalist and digital producer with President Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, The Los Angeles Times reported.
The Iowa Democratic and Republican parties had worked with Harvard’s Defending Digital Democracy Project to develop strategies and systems to protect results and deal with any misinformation that’s reported on caucus night.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price, who also worked as Clinton’s 2016 Iowa political director, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday about the relationship between the party and Shadow, which it paid $63,184 for website development and travel expenses, according to reports filed with the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board.
The Nevada Democratic Party had also planned to use the app in its Feb. 22 caucuses, but said Tuesday it would not be using it.
That is a smart move, says Tim Mackey, principal security strategist with software developer Synopsys, headquartered in Mountain View, California. “I would urge caution in reusing this app, any variants, or any replacements in future primaries – until an independent security review of the selected apps can occur,” he told USA TODAY.
“Apps fail all the time, and while there are assertions that part of the problem stemmed from the turnout for the Iowa caucuses, any application should be designed and tested to identify how it performs when stressed,” he said.
Lingering questions about the app’s deployment, usability, testing and its creation suggest this is a topic that will soon go away.
Contributing: Jason Clayworth Lee Rood, and Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register; The Associated Press.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.