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Iowa Democrats Will Use A Smartphone App At Caucuses, Despite Cybersecurity Concerns


The upcoming Iowa caucuses represent the first in a year of big tests for America's democracy after Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. In fact, NPR and Iowa Public Radio have learned that Iowa state Democrats are going to use a new smartphone app to help run their caucuses. We're going to talk more about that now with two reporters - first, Miles Parks. He covers election security for NPR.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: And Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne. She's in Des Moines.

Welcome, Kate.


CORNISH: I want to start with you first. Just remind us how caucuses work and how an app would be involved this time around.

PAYNE: Yeah, so caucuses are very different from a primary. There are no ballots. There are no voting booths. Iowans will physically go to different community centers all across the state and physically show their support for a candidate by standing in a different part of the room. And so as far as this app, the party is hoping that it will help precinct leaders be able to report their results more quickly. Those leaders will be calculating how many delegates each candidate wins based on the support in the room. And so having an app - the intention is that process will happen faster, and local leaders will have help in calculating those numbers.

CORNISH: Miles, we've talked a lot about cybersecurity since the 2016 election, given that cyberattacks were part of Russia's interference. How big a deal is this that Iowa Democrats are going to try and use this approach in 2020?

PARKS: It's one thing to introduce a new piece of election technology without really any practice beforehand, and then it's another thing to introduce that piece of election technology without giving any security details about it. We know very little about the specifics of this app. We don't know who developed it or who wrote the code. We don't know what sorts of security tests have been performed on it. These are the two basic questions that any security expert would ask when confronting a new system. And the Democratic Party says, basically, they're not going to provide any of this information because they're scared it would help hackers. But experts actually say that that secrecy doesn't help against hacking at all.

Here's Betsy Cooper. She's a cybersecurity policy expert at the Aspen Institute.

BETSY COOPER: Basic transparency around how it was built, how up-to-date the security of the app is and how it's been tested all could be made publicly available with little cost to the DNC.

CORNISH: Kate, how are these concerns being addressed? As you said, this app is focused mainly on reporting caucus results. Could the election results be, for instance, changed remotely?

PAYNE: So because of the way the caucuses work, there are thousands of witnesses who are seeing the results play out in these caucus locations. This year, the party is also using preference cards, so there will be a paper trail involved that could be referenced. So the idea of the results being tampered with - that could be overturned. There will also be contingency plans that the party has set up. Trey (ph) Price, the head of the state party in Iowa, says there'll be a hotline for folks to call in if the app doesn't work for whatever reason.

TROY PRICE: If there is a challenge, we'll be ready with a backup and a backup to that backup and a backup to the backup to the backup. I mean, we are fully prepared to make sure that we can get these results in and get these results in accurately.

CORNISH: Finally, Miles, given what happened back in 2016, what are some of the other sorts of problems that people should be aware of?

PARKS: There are a couple scenarios look out for here. A successful attack could potentially lead to the wrong winner being announced and then having to be retracted, which would obviously lead to a lot of questions about the election's legitimacy. An attack that didn't even break into the system could still potentially bring it down, which would obviously lead to delays in reporting and a lot of confusion at all these individual precincts.

And then there's the possibility - you have to remember that this app is going to be downloaded on the phones of almost 2,000 party and caucus leaders across the state. These are personal devices that have emails, passwords, text messages, photos. And Russia has already shown an ability to weaponize information that they have hacked and stolen. They did this leading up to the 2016 election, hacking John Podesta's email account and weaponizing those emails. We just do not have enough security specifics about this app to know how it will protect against that same sorts of hacking this time around.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks.

Thanks so much.

PARKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio, thank you for your reporting.

PAYNE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.