Novel raises question of whether election could be hacked

Fictional plot could have reverberations in reality at the polls

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Long-time high-tech lawyer Andrew Upde­grove is tick­led by Don­ald Trump’s lead in the nation­al polls for the Repub­li­can Party’s pres­i­den­tial candidate.

The Mass­a­chu­setts lawyer wrote his first novel—a polit­i­cal and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty satire titled The Lafayette Cam­paign—before Trump and his many insults entered the pres­i­den­tial race. The fic­tion­al book is fol­low­ing the true-life sto­ry­line, Upde­grove says.

Free resource: Putting effec­tive data risk man­age­ment with­in reach

The Lafayette Cam­paign says it lam­poons “much of the non­sense” that per­vades pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, includ­ing out­ra­geous pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. That might hit home on the Repub­li­can side of the real-life cam­paign that has fea­tured such non­politi­cians as Trump, Ben Car­son and Car­ly Fio­r­i­na par­tic­i­pat­ing in a war of ridicule and incivility.

In The Lafayette Cam­paign, increas­ing­ly improb­a­ble can­di­dates declare their can­di­da­cy for pres­i­dent and imme­di­ate­ly rise up in the polls—similar to what hap­pened to Sen. Ted Cruz, Car­son and Trump.

Andrew Updegrove, lawyer and author
Andrew Upde­grove, lawyer and author

There’s a log­i­cal rea­son for the results in the book,” says Upde­grove, who attend­ed Richard Nixon’s first pres­i­den­tial inau­gu­ra­tion, but con­sid­ers him­self a left-lean­ing inde­pen­dent. “Some­one is hack­ing the polls and then the pri­maries. But in the real elec­tion, it appears that the con­ser­v­a­tive wing of the elec­torate actu­al­ly wants Don­ald Trump for president.

This leaves the Amer­i­can peo­ple at large with an inter­est­ing ques­tion: Would they rather believe that Amer­i­cans are crazy enough to elect some­one like Trump or that some­one real­ly could hack the elec­tion? The bad news is that the answer very well could be both.”

The Lafayette Cam­paign begins with a gov­ern­ment agency recruit­ing cyber­se­cu­ri­ty super sleuth Frank Adversego to find out who is hack­ing the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date polls. Adversego soon learns that vot­ing results also may be hacked.

Draw­ing from secu­ri­ty background

As with many heroes, he’s a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter,” explains Upde­grove, a part­ner in a Boston law firm for tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies who pre­vi­ous­ly worked for orga­ni­za­tions that devel­oped pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty stan­dards. “I’m a big believ­er that genre fic­tion needn’t be one-dimen­sion­al and triv­ial. Char­ac­ters should be cred­i­ble and inter­est­ing in a way that makes the read­er actu­al­ly care what hap­pens to them. I also like the read­er to walk away know­ing more than they did before about the tech world, and a good way to do that is through the eyes and the life expe­ri­ence of the main character.”

Adversego’s career as a secu­ri­ty guru began with his involve­ment with the ARPANET, the pre­de­ces­sor of today’s Internet.

I’ve worked with tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies through­out that same time peri­od,” says Upde­grove, who grad­u­at­ed from Yale and Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Law School. “If I recall the most tal­ent­ed, social­ly awk­ward soft­ware devel­op­ers I’ve known and con­sol­i­date them into one, the result might look pret­ty much like Frank. But I’ve also tried to human­ize him, in part by giv­ing him not only an out­size pro­fes­sion­al ego, but also the abil­i­ty to call his own bluff when he’s wrong.”

Lafayette-book jacket_220Might Frank’s world in The Lafayette Cam­paign, though, be pure fic­tion and a stretch of the hack­ing imagination?

Truth stranger than fiction

Regard­ing the real-life polit­i­cal polls, “sur­vey after sur­vey con­firms that most com­put­er sys­tem own­ers fall woe­ful­ly short when it comes to secu­ri­ty,” Upde­grove says. “Nation­al mer­chants, uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ment agencies—you name it—have all been hacked. Or, as many secu­ri­ty experts say, the world can be divid­ed into just two groups: those who know they’ve been hacked, and those who have, but don’t know it.”

So, are the polls being hacked now?

I’m cer­tain­ly not say­ing that Don­ald Trump is fund­ing a hack­ing cam­paign,” Upde­grove says. “But if The Don­ald is giv­ing us the straight sto­ry when he claims that he’s come out on top in 73 con­sec­u­tive polls, it makes you won­der. Has any can­di­date in the his­to­ry of polling ever done that?”

The lawyer/author/tech expert also won­ders whether “some­one lurk­ing on the side­lines” has real­ized that spend­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to lock up the elec­tion through hack­ing might be a bet­ter invest­ment than spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for TV ads “that might not do the job.”

Upde­grove points out that vot­ing fraud has long been a part of America’s polit­i­cal his­to­ry. Many his­to­ri­ans, he says, now agree that the theft of a few bal­lot box­es in Texas decid­ed the 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in favor of John Kennedy over Richard Nixon.

Vot­ing machines vul­ner­a­ble to attack

Last year, Virginia’s State Board of Elec­tions banned touch­screen vot­ing machines used by more than 560 precincts. The machines, which had been used in elec­tions for more than 10 years, were found to be insuf­fi­cient­ly secured with poor pass­word con­trols that left them sus­cep­ti­ble to intrusion.

It was learned,” Upde­grove says, “that any­one with even a very mod­est knowl­edge about com­put­ers could sit out­side a vot­ing sta­tion with a lap­top and a Wi-Fi anten­na made of a Pringles pota­to chip can and replace the entire data­base of votes cast with a new one.”

Upde­grove says the hack­ing he designed for The Lafayette Cam­paign is much more sophis­ti­cat­ed than would be nec­es­sary in real life, because so many vot­ing machines are vulnerable.

They’re typ­i­cal­ly pur­chased by towns and coun­ties with small bud­gets and no exper­tise with tech­nol­o­gy, and then are kept in ser­vice, on aver­age, for more than 10 years,” he says. “Between elec­tions, they’re stored with lit­tle or no secu­ri­ty, and when they are set up, the vot­ing sta­tions are usu­al­ly run by vol­un­teers, often from the par­ty in pow­er. Once you have phys­i­cal access to a com­put­er, the rest is easy.”

The Lafayette Cam­paign is Updegrove’s sec­ond book, and he is work­ing on a third. His first book, The Alexan­dria Project: A Tale of Treach­ery and Tech­nol­o­gy, also fea­tures Adversego and relates to the hack­ing of the U.S. nuclear mis­sile system.

Like The Lafayette Cam­paign,” Upde­grove says, “quite a bit of the plot that I came up with for that one has come true since.”

More elec­tion-relat­ed stories:
Where the front-run­ners stand on sur­veil­lance, Snowden
Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty a con­cern for can­di­dates on 2016 cam­paign trail

 


Posted in Cybersecurity, Featured Story