Hackers at the Defcon computer security conference believe they can help prevent manipulation of U.S. elections. Some election officials and makers of voting machines aren’t so sure. That tension was front and center at Defcon’s second-annual Voting Village, where computer hackers are invited to test the security of commonly used election machines. Organizers see the event as an early test of U.S. election security and a counterpunch to potential outside interference. On the first day of the event, which runs through Sunday, hackers were able to swap out software, uncover network plug-ins that shouldn’t have been left working, and uncover other ways for unauthorized actors to manipulate the vote. These hacks can root out weaknesses in voting machines so that vendors will be pressured to patch flaws and states will upgrade to more secure systems, organizers say. … “You want companies to be building more secure products, but at the same time the public doesn’t necessarily know the full picture,” Ms. Manfra said. “If all you are saying is, ‘Look, even a kid can hack into this’, you’re not getting the full story, which can have the impact of having the average voter not understanding what is going on.”
“It’s really, really difficult to actually manipulate the vote count itself,” she said.
But it’s still worth uncovering any potential security flaws in these machines, because there are plenty of others—organized criminals for example—who might want to throw an election, said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist with the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology.
“Everybody’s talking about Russians, but we have to be clear that there are other threats here,” said Mr. Hall on Friday while mingling with hackers at the Defcon Voting Village. It’s a conference room deep in the bowels of Caesars Palace—littered with voting machines, memory cards and scanners.
A few minutes later, Mr. Hall stopped talking and cast a wary eye over at two attendees who were examining a big gray vote scanning machine in the corner of the room. He was worried they might plug it in and fire up its powerful engine without supervision. “We’re OK with destructive testing of these things. I just don’t want you to hurt yourself,” he said. “There are things that will take your fingers off in there.”