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.

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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