Cook County Clerk Election Security Part 2

Last week, I sat down with Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and her Deputy, John Mirkovic. Clerk Yarbrough gave an excellent interview discussing changes she has helped bring about during her tenure to protect the ballot box. As a followup to that interview, I sat down with her Deputy who provided more technical details regarding the current state of Cyber readiness and efforts to adopt leading technologies to streamline and secure government from cyber attacks. Please watch this followup to the previous interview with Clerk Yarbrough by clicking the image below.

The transcript of the interview follows:

Lee Neubecker: Hi, I’m here today with Karen Yarbrough, the Cook County Clerk and Recorder, her deputy, John Mirkovic is her data wizard. He’s come on my show to talk a little bit about Election CyberSecurity and some other interesting topics. John, thanks for coming on today.

John Mirkovic: Thanks for having us, Lee.

Lee Neubecker: So, the Clerk and I we’re talking a little bit about Microsoft’s open ElectionGuard and I wanted to get your take on what’s happening with that. If you could tell everyone what the platform’s about and what brought this about in terms of Microsoft’s involvement.

John Mirkovic: Yeah, we’re pretty excited about this and one reason, our vendor is participating. So, generally this is an idea to build really the best voting machine out there or kind of establish the software and hardware standards that the government would like jurisdictions across the country to adopt to really open-source standards. So, what this is about is, as you know open-source, it’s about doing all the work on the front end, publishing your code and your set-ups and inviting the world to attack it and try and penetrate it. So, our vendor is working with this system. We are monitoring the progress. It’s moving a little slow but we’re excited that there’s finally people taking about open-source in government because it’s really the most important.

Lee Neubecker: Oh yeah, and it’s good too because essentially you’re putting the spotlight on the system. So, if there’s a bug, everyone’s talking about it online and it gets fixed, it’s transparent and what I like the best about this is it creates a potential for all these Clerks and other parties responsible for voting to be able to capture and preserve those votes and introduce technology to allow people to verify that their vote was cast as intended.

John Mirkovic: Yeah, exactly, and a lot of offices across the country don’t have enough resources to get the equipment they want. There are a lot of states that vote only on electronic machines which is frightening, really, and it’s kind of the worst system to have, so, any kind of sharing of resources is vital for government to be able to quickly get the entire country up to the same standard.

Lee Neubecker: So, John has the federal government been helping get Cook County ready for the next election cycle? And if so, what has the federal government’s role been with assisting you?

John Mirkovic: Yeah, they’ve been a great partner both Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. It is a true partnership because we have adequate resources here, so we’re able to implement a lot of the cutting edge stuff that they would like to see across the country.

John Mirkovic: So, we are almost like a pilot or a laboratory really. They’re in our office on Election Day, monitoring the systems, checking how all the CyberSecurity systems work, any realtime threat sharing. So, yeah, we in Cook County are considered to be amongst the top 1% of performers in the country and we’re happy to help spread that information to other jurisdictions.

Lee Neubecker: Last time when you and I had lunch, you were telling me a little bit about some of your work in the blockchain space and some of your ideas for how you thought blockchain might be able to help Recorder officers everywhere with using blockchain technology to record deeds. Can you tell a little bit about what the premise is behind that and explain to people how that can revolutionize the recording of deeds?

John Mirkovic: Yeah, yeah, it sort of ties into elections too. You know, the most famous blockchain out there is Bitcoin. And Bitcoin works so well because it’s only designed to do one thing which is transfer numbers from one ledger to another. So, really being inspired, you know, not only by the technological ability to protect that using hashing algorithms and digital signatures, just the general idea on architecturing software in the same manner.

John Mirkovic: And, you know, Clerk Yarbrough said before, “It’s like ‚ĶBack to the Future.”

John Mirkovic: Technology doesn’t always have to be about adding more features. And generally when you build products in committees or groups, no one’s happy and the compromise is never what anyone wants. So, in election security there can be no compromises, we have to have the best.

John Mirkovic: So, blockchain, you know, is a way to digitally guarantee certain outcomes. So, you know, it’s not quite ready for elections yet though there have been some experiments with it. It’s great technology for Land records and preferably only if it is applied on a large scale to protect the entire transaction. So, blockchain is a way to wrap an expensive, important transaction in CyberSecurity and ensure that it works out.

Lee Neubecker: So, right now, I know it’s common if people are trying to research property records. They’ll come down to the Recorder’s office, go into the basement, sometimes look through microfiche or something. Is there a likelihood that if this technology gets adopted, universally.. that all those old records will be retroactively kind of put back out onto the blockchain so that they exist in cyberspace?

John Mirkovic: Yeah, that’s a great question, one that we get a lot. It some smaller counties you would probably be able to do that. Cook County, unfortunately has way too many records in various states of microfilm. And, to get those on, they would actually require the same types of effort that creates bad data in the first place which is re-keying data entry. So, really the best approach, if we were to switch to such a system would be… like the County used to insure title for certain transactions. So, in those cases we could, look at the transaction, insure over any risks from the 1950s and 60s. We know what else is out there from, you know, the 50s in kind of electronic format. So, it’s too tough to get it all into the same system but when you think about how these systems work, you know, if you have a legacy database and a distributed database, it’s all feeding to one website, right. So, the public, you know, when they go and do their research, they’re not really going to see the background whether it’s a distributed database or a centralized database. So, it’s all about how you deliver the information to the people.

Lee Neubecker: Well, thanks a bunch for being on the show. I really appreciate it.Thank you.

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Cook County Clerk on Election Security

Enigma Forensics’ CEO Interviews Cook County Illinois Clerk Karen Yarbrough on election security. The two discuss progress made in securing the vote against cyber attacks over the last several years.

Clerk Yarbrough has been working to streamline and improve the efficiency of the Clerk’s office while ensuring that the next 202o election is protected against rogue nation states that may want to compromise our next election cycle.

Watch the video below by clicking the image.

Transcript of the interview is as follows:

Lee Neubecker: I am here today with Karen Yarbrough she is our Recorder of Deeds and Clerk in Cook County here in Chicago.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Well not quite Recorder of Deeds anymore Lee, I am now the Cook County Clerk and will be taking over the Recorder of Deeds office in about a year. We actually went to the voters and the voters decided that they were going to do a consolidation of the two offices and so I will pick up the Recorders job in about a year.

Lee Neubecker: So you must have a lot of integration going on with technical resources.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: You can imagine, and yes we do. I have a very capable staff and we’re trying to get our arms around you know in the clerk’s office there are a number of duties and responsibilities we have elections of course, we have vital records and then we also are involved with taxes, and so I’ve been in this job since December. And what I’m trying to do now is get ready for 2020 and the big election for sure. But also we are absorbing the duties of the recorder of deeds. Big undertaking.

Lee Neubecker: So with all the talk of election hacking and whatnot by different nation states and foreign entities. What kind of things are you involved with, with Cook County with helping to defend against the voting system being attacked the next election cycle?

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Well for starters Lee, our approach is a multi-leveled risk management approach. We know that there’s no system is foolproof. I mean you know it’s not a perfect system. No system is. Knowing that, we tend to look at every aspect of our system. We have these guiding principles. Defend Detect and Recover. What that simply means is we have a plan we have a plan A plan B all the way to Z.

Lee Neubecker: So its more than just putting your head under the covers.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Oh, no, no, no. I noticed when we were in the Recorder Deeds office our systems were attacked on a daily basis. People scraping our sites and in all of these kinds of things. So I am aware of this business of you know people trying to steal data and and what-have-you. But the elections are absolutely positively important. People need to understand that their vote does count and it will count. All the noise we’re hearing from Washington DC really makes people nervous.

Lee Neubecker: What kind of hings have happened to help make sure that wasn’t going to happen. Let’s say if the computers all get zapped to make sure that votes that are casted get counted.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Well first of all I have a team of experts. On staff. We’re sharing a gentleman with the city of Chicago who is at the top of the food chain when it comes to people who know about this kind of thing. Having those people on board working with the city of Chicago, we also have a two-factor login authentication of course the firewalls VPN and dedicated private data networks. Then we’re going to be able to lock down our systems both on the hardware and software lock them down before and after elections. So those are the kinds of things that we’re doing. And I think we’re going to be ready coming 2020.

Lee Neubecker: I understand that you’re currently doing some projects to seek outside computer forensic experts. What is your office looking for assistance with right now?

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: I think we’re putting something right now, I might want to defer to John Mirkovic who’s with me here today, on how that’s going. John’s been with me since I was actually in Springfield as a legislator and he has been working on the Blockchain Initiative and certainly this, and so, if you would, could you defer to him, so he can talk about what we’re doing there because John keeps up with this more than I do.

Lee Neubecker: Sure absolutely. What, in the event that a data breach were to happen, what kind of things are in place to make sure that you can recover and get back?

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Sure. Okay having those plans certainly are important. But you know the Cook County just spent 32 million dollars on new voting equipment. That voting equipment that we have it’s almost like going back to the future,you know all the talk about, you know,voting on the internet and all these kinds of things,up come at some time, at some point in the future. But today we need to know that those votes are safe. So with the system that we have now. I don’t know if you remember,but you would have a system where you have on the side this kind of ticker tape thing that would show you how you voted.

Lee Neubecker: Paper audit trail.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Okay yeah well nobody noticed it. I mean I shouldn’t say nobody. But many people didn’t notice that with the new equipment, and we piloted it actually in your suburb and a couple of others. So we ran it through, and people loved it. It was so simple. So you know, you vote, you can either vote, the same way you vote now. So you could use your stylus or what have you. You place your vote, but then it’s going to shoot your ballot out to you. You’ll be able to hold that in your hand. You’ll be able to see if everything you voted for is there. And then you, not somebody else, but you will be able to post and cast your ballot.

Lee Neubecker: So the key thing is, well while the votes are being stored electronically there’s also be printed, they’re also being verified in a print out, that people can see. And then they can take it over and feed it and then scan it so you have another level of detection done, you’ve got the paper vote locked up in a box.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Exactly. And let’s say you mentioned something about the whole system blowing up. Okay so if the whole system blows up we still have that paper ballot locked away so that if we have to go back and let’s say everything blew up and people are running all around, with what have you. We can go and retrieve those documents and by hand we can actually,you know, count those those votes, so people should feel confident.

Lee Neubecker: It’s a great Improvement.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: It is.

Lee Neubecker: I was brought in to consider bidding on the suburban voter audit project for the forensic project. At the time, what I was concerned about, is there wasn’t a simultaneous printout. And at certain points in time, the votes only existed electronically in storage media. They would be transferred to a consolidator that would transmit it. There was a potential at the time, that someone could have a USB device preloaded with 118 votes but in a different distribution. They could swap that device out and put it in the consolidator. But that doesn’t doesn’t exist now with the new equipment.

Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Not at all. So we’re happy about that. Let me tell you, we’re happy about that. The voters who voted in the last election, both the voters and our folks who run the elections, the judges, and what have you, just absolutely love the new system. They liked the fact that they were going to have that ballot in their hand. We shared with them, what happens now? I said well your votes are going to be counted. I said well what if? That’s the same questions that you ask. Well what if? Well we’ve taken all those precautions. But, Lee, I know, like you know, while you have a better mousetrap today, you always have to stay on your P’s and Q’s. The young man I was talking about Raoul, is his name, we share with city Chicago, everyday he’s checking our system, right now, we’re just about we’re ready to go. I think if we had to have an election today, we could have that election and have the confidence that we need to know that we’re going to have a good election, it’s going to be safe, people are going to feel good about how they’re gonna be able to cast their ballot. I’m just excited about the whole thing.

Lee Neubecker: I appreciate everything you’re doing to help secure the vote in Cook County and all your effort to streamline the government.
Clerk Karen Yarbrough: Well thank you so much for the invitation to come on. I’m just thrilled and I know that you’re a real geek and you know all of this stuff. But thank you so very much for having me on.

Lee Neubecker: Thank you Karen Yarbrough!

Watch the second part in this two part series on Cook County Election Security.

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