This app wants to be the one that curbs election chaos
What if a local voting official spots dangerous disinformation? Squint hopes to help.
Days after an app derailed the Iowa caucuses, a fresh election app is rolling out, this one seeking to be an antidote to another kind of election chaos.
Mitre Corp., a 60-year-old not-for-profit company that provides engineering and technical guidance to the federal government, told Protocol on Thursday it is unveiling Squint, a program designed to help state and local election officials combat disinformation around elections. Officials said they will launch the initiative Feb. 15.
Election officials can download the mobile app or install it as a plug-in on their browser. If they encounter something on the web or social media that they believe is incorrect or suspicious and could harm an election, they can flag it with Squint. The app takes a screenshot of the offending post, while capturing the URL and metadata.
"It immediately gives you a nice quality report, with the actual visual evidence that you can take to whatever platform it was on," said Emily Frye, co-director of election integrity at Mitre.
The app — reminiscent of cities' "311" report-a-problem apps — will not be available to the public. Mitre officials declined to discuss the cost, but they said the project was funded independently by the company and not at the behest of any U.S. government agency.
Local and state election offices can designate who receives Squint reports as they are compiled in that jurisdiction. So, for example, offices in one state could name the Secretary of State to receive all of the reports, Frye said. That agency could then assess reports flowing in to determine whether disinformation is isolated, or is part of a coordinated campaign, before deciding how best to respond.
"The idea is they then have the aggregate data, which gives them a much more consolidated, thorough view of what's happening in my jurisdiction and gives them an idea of how to deal with voters in a strategic way instead of a whack-a-mole way," Frye said.
Mitre's app won't be alone in its goal, amid growing fear that disinformation could play a dramatic role in this year's election. The nonprofit Center for Internet Security will be rolling out a similar tool shortly, said spokesperson Jason Forget. He said the CIS tool is backed by the Democracy Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The CIS runs the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which helps state and local governments and the election tech industry battle cyber threats.
Mitre said it is rolling out a second election security initiative on Friday. The National Election Security Lab will provide a free testing center where jurisdictions can have their entire voting systems assessed for risk.
As technology plays a bigger role in elections around the country, many local and state officials are navigating patchworks of tech that were built, acquired and developed at different times, often provided by different vendors. These systems must interact for voting and tabulating to run smoothly, exposing vulnerabilities that security researchers worry are easily overlooked. For instance, a database of voters managed by a county may communicate with an electronic poll book provided by an outside vendor. That poll book may communicate which type of ballot to provide to a voter to an electronic voting machine built by yet a different vendor. "It's the places where these technologies interact that we have opportunities to really pull down risk," Frye said.
But voting officials have scant resources to test many technologies. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission runs a voluntary testing and certification program, but only for the hardware and software used to cast a vote. As a result, many election officials have no choice but to rely on self-testing and self-reporting by vendors. Those vendors may have financial incentives to keep quiet about security flaws, experts say.
The Mitre project "will allow officials to take their equipment to the lab and get it tested by a third party who doesn't have a business interest in the outcome," said Maurice Turner, deputy director of the Internet Architecture Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
A handful of jurisdictions are queued up to have their election systems tested, Frye said, with the first showing up to the Mitre lab in Virginia on Friday.