U.S. markets closed

Fake news and political ads are bigger problems than hacking, says RackTop Systems CEO

Should voters remain cautious of election interference when they head to the polls in 2020?

Eric Bednash, a veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who is now the CEO of cybersecurity firm, RackTop Systems, joined The Final Round to discuss his concerns for election security and voter fraud as America prepares for the polls.

Why election interference is a ‘front-end’ issue

There are a number of ways to safeguard against ‘physical hacking’ attempts at voting booths, says Bednash.

“We’ve seen voting machines that have been hacked before – we’ve seen the manipulation, and it’s been proven,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to have paper ballots, different risk-limiting audits that you can use to check the votes, if there was any tampering that had occurred to those machines.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

But Bednash says there’s a more important element to election interference that occurs before Americans ever reach the polls.

“I believe [election interference is at] the front-end of the election,” says Bednash. “It’s manipulating the way people think about a certain candidate or a certain issue. Over the last few years, ‘fake news’ has been a big part of the news, and it’s that misinformation that really could change the outcome, more so than someone physically hacking into one of the devices that records the votes.”

‘It’s very easy’ for adversaries to manipulate information on social media

Since the 2016 election, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been at the center of the furor over election interference; yet, their approaches to mitigating this in 2020 have differed sharply. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts free speech and open platforms, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is banning political advertising globally, arguing that “political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

“The folks that are running these social platforms, that give everybody this voice...there’s a certain responsibility there,” says Bednash. “We’ve seen two different sides of this with Facebook and Twitter recently in the news; so there’s a little bit of responsibility that goes along with ensuring that what gets published on those platforms is actually truthful.”

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

“You can cite free speech and an open platform,” says Bednash. “But there is a sense of responsibility that comes with this, because you have this platform that’s essentially lowered the barrier for people to be able to put this kind of information out there. In the past, we’d have to purchase a T.V. ad if we wanted to get information out there, and that would be very expensive, the barrier was very high. But, with social media platforms, it’s very low – it’s very easy for this stuff to get out there, it’s very easy for adversaries, or ‘the bad guys’ to put stuff out there to manipulate the way we think about certain things.”

‘We have to have security at every level of every process’

Americans cannot become complacent with regard to election security, says Bednash, especially when it comes to the critical and confidential information collected and stored by political campaigns.

“Anything involving security and information and data is concerning,” says Bednash. “We’ve already seen it in the last few years: what information can be obtained by an opposing party, [and] the damage it can do. And that opposing party could not necessarily be the Republican party, or the Democratic party – it could be a foreign nation. We have the have security at every level of every process. I think the days of assuming that things are going to be secure by default are gone – we’re in a connected world, and all of our information, all of our devices, are connected. We should take the point of view where we need to think about things from a data perspective, and data security, first, so we don’t end up in trouble.”