For years, Barbara Simons was the loneliest of Cassandras—a technologist who feared what technology had wrought. Her cause was voting: Specifically, she believed that the electronic systems that had gained favor in the United States after the 2000 presidential election were shoddy, and eminently hackable. She spent years publishing opinion pieces in obscure journals with titles like Municipal World and sending hectoring letters to state officials, always written with the same clipped intensity. Simons, who is now 76, had been a pioneer in computer science at IBM Research at a time when few women not in the secretarial pool walked its halls. In her retirement, however, she was coming off as a crank. Fellow computer scientists might have heard her out, but to the public officials she needed to win over, the idea that software could be manipulated to rig elections remained a fringe preoccupation. Simons was not dissuaded. “They didn’t know what they were talking about and I did,” she told me. She wrote more articles, wrote a book, badgered policy makers, made “a pain of myself.” Though a liberal who had first examined voting systems under the Clinton administration, she did battle with the League of Women Voters (of which she is a member), the ACLU, and other progressive organizations that had endorsed paperless voting, largely on the grounds that electronic systems offered greater access to voters with disabilities.
Simons was called a Luddite. At times, she was treated as just short of raving. At a League of Women Voters convention, she took a turn at the microphone to challenge the league’s president. The moderator tried to yank the mic from her hand.
Simons is not grappling for mics anymore. In late July, at the annual Def Con hacker conference, in Las Vegas, she addressed an event called the Voting Village—a staged attack on voting machines. “I lose sleep over this. I hope you will too,” she told the hackers who had packed into a windowless conference room at Caesars Palace.
Four voting machines had been secured for the event, three of them types still in use. One team of hackers used radio signals to eavesdrop on a machine as it recorded votes. Another found a master password online. Within hours of getting their hands on the machines, the hackers had discovered vulnerabilities in all four.
For much of the afternoon, Simons was in the pressroom, surrounded by reporters eager to hear her make the same points she’d been making for years. “Anything that’s happening in here, you can be sure that those intent on undermining the integrity of our election systems have already done,” she told a reporter from USA Today.
Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election have reversed Simons’s fortunes. According to the Department of Homeland Security, those efforts included attempts to meddle with the electoral process in 21 states. At the same time, a series of highly publicized hacks—at Sony, Equifax, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management—has driven home the reality that very few computerized systems are truly secure.
State officials now return Simons’s calls. Like many of her former adversaries, the League of Women Voters no longer insists on paperless voting. In September, after years of effort by Simons and the nonprofit she helps run, Verified Voting, Virginia abandoned the practice. I asked Simons how it felt to be vindicated. “It sucks,” she said. “I would much rather have been wrong.”