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Why apps don’t belong anywhere near elections

Election Day could go off with a glitch.
  • Amrita Khalid
By Amrita Khalid

Tech reporter

The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses were nearly derailed by an app that led to all kinds of delays in reporting the results. But while much of the criticism has focused on the developer, election security experts say an app—any app—should never have been considered for use in an election of such importance. They are just way too unreliable.

Nearly 12 years after Apple and Google launched their app stores, the mobile ecosystem is saturated with apps for virtually every single function, from fitness to food to travel to meditation. But with an estimated 71% churn rate, most apps are doomed to deletion within 90 days. Apps regularly freeze, crash, and fall victim to glitches and bugs. Poor wifi and other connectivity issues can throw them off. So can outdated firmware, or users neglecting to install security updates. Apps are also particularly vulnerable to malware and are prone to leaking your personal data.

None of this seems ideal for a technology used to tabulate and report results for a crucial election in the most powerful democracy in the world.

Beyond their potential to create logistical nightmares, internet-based technologies also add potential security vulnerabilities. Early initial enthusiasm for e-voting machines in the US, for example, has mostly given way to fears that internet-based voting could open the door to hackers. Right now, there are 13 states that don’t even require voting machines to maintain a paper trail. Election security experts generally favor a luddite approach to the use of technology in elections instead, encouraging states to at the very least retain paper voting records. One only has to review Monday’s incident in Iowa to see why. 

“It’s clear that mobile apps are not ready for prime time, but thankfully Iowa has paper records of their vote totals and will be able to release results from those records,” wrote Marian K. Schneider, president of Verified Voting, an election security non-profit, in an email to Quartz.

Computer science experts are the first to warn against the use of software that hasn’t been tested on a mass scale, especially for a live event with far-reaching national and even international implications.

Dan Drapeau, head of technology at Blue Fountain Media, a digital agency that develops apps, said that in cases like this, where an app handles sensitive information, a third party should have been involved.  “The application could have benefited from performance and load testing executed during a simulation. Additional testing should have been done to ensure that the application could hold up against attacks like a (…denial of service attack),” he said in an email to Quartz. 

Elections by nature are unruly and hard to predict, and things can often go wrong. In such a scenario, a new, unfamiliar technology will only add fuel to the fire. “I am not a believer in using technology for elections. Election Day is chaos. Elections are run by people that don’t do it all the time. Elections don’t happen all the time. The systems approach to something like this is that you keep it as simple as possible,” said Duncan Buell, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has researched electronic voting systems and their weaknesses. 

According to Buell, Monday’s debacle in Iowa is the type of disarray you’d expect if you asked a large number of people from non-computing backgrounds to download an app to their own personal devices, all on different networks, and then, furthermore, relied on them to send information at around roughly the same time to one central location. 

“That’s a recipe for disaster. You got a lot of disparate stuff coming in from different places,” he said.

The problems with the app used during the Iowa caucus were clear long before the election even took place. Back in January, NPR reported that cybersecurity experts had concerns that such an app could be vulnerable to hacking or a denial of service attack. The Iowa Democratic Party at the time declined to disclose the name of the company that designed the app, or whether it had been tested by a third party for vulnerabilities. The fact that caucus precinct and party leaders would be downloading the app on their own personal smartphones, and not devices provided by the party itself, seemed like a recipe for disaster. The Iowa party chairman Troy Price insisted that the contingency plan, a telephone hotline, would work if the app failed. As it turns out, that was not the case.

The identity of the vendor that built the app—Shadow, Inc.—was not disclosed until late on Monday evening, when it became clear that something had gone wrong at the Iowa caucuses. The New York Times reported that Shadow pulled together its app over just the past two months, and was not tested on a statewide scale. 

The secrecy over the app’s creator meant that the wider cybersecurity community couldn’t vouch for its credibility. Shadow, previously known as Groundbase, had run into problems before with other apps it developed for campaigns.

“The decision to use the app is shrouded in party secrecy. We had no idea of the identity of the decision makers, and no way to assess their competence–until they made a big mistake,” said Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, in an interview with Quartz. 

For its part, Shadow apologized for the whole mishap on Tuesday.

“As the Iowa Democratic Party has confirmed, the underlying data and collection process via Shadow’s mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not,” the company wrote in a tweet. 

But ultimately the responsibility may lie instead with those that made the decision to use an app to begin with, as well as the US government, which—incredibly—doesn’t regulate how votes are tabulated, recorded and reported.

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