Read: Chaos at the caucus
This method is sometimes dubbed “security through obscurity,” and while there are instances for which it might be appropriate, it is a fragile method, especially unsuited to anything public on the internet that might invite an attack. For example, putting a spare key in a secret place in your backyard isn’t a terrible practice, because the odds are low that someone will be highly motivated to break into any given house and manage to look exactly in the right place (well, unless you put it under the mat). But when there are more significant incentives and the system is open to challenge by anyone in the world, as with anything on the internet, someone will likely find a way to get the keys, as the Motion Picture Association of America found out when its supposedly obscure digital keys, meant to prevent copyright infringement, quickly leaked. Shadow’s app was going to be used widely on caucus day, and independent security experts warned that this method wasn’t going to work. The company didn’t listen.
If Shadow had opened up the app to experts, they likely would have found many bugs, and the app would have been much stronger as a result. But even that process would not have made the app secure. An app that is downloaded onto the phones of thousands of precinct officials across Iowa—with varying degrees of phone security and different operating systems—cannot be fully protected against Russian or any other hackers. Underground “hacks” for sale allow remote attackers to infiltrate phones, especially ones without the latest system updates, as is the case for many Android phones. Creating a more hardened phone network is possible, but that would require issuing secure phones to every official, and providing training and technical support. There is no indication that any of that was done here.
But why bother hacking the system? Anything developed this rapidly that has not been properly stress-tested—and is being used in the wild by thousands of people at the same time—is likely to crash the first time it is deployed. This has happened before, to Orca, Mitt Romney’s Election Day app, which was supposed to help volunteers get voters to the polls, but instead was overwhelmed by traffic and stopped working, leaving thousands of fuming voters without rides. It happened in 2008 to Barack Obama’s app, dubbed Houdini, which also crashed on Election Day. It happened to HealthCare.gov—the website that was launched to help people find coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but that failed so badly, it took a team of people from Silicon Valley who quickly and voluntarily left their much cushier jobs and worked seven-day weeks for months to fix it.
Read: The Iowans who reject their state’s special privilege
Immediately after it became clear that the Iowa Democratic Party was unable to produce results and, worse, was talking about “inconsistencies” in results, Donald Trump surrogates started talking up how this must have been a fix perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee, perhaps in hopes of riling up supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who were already suspicious of the party establishment. Some Sanders supporters, wary after a last-minute poll widely expected to show a Sanders surge was scrapped due to errors, needed no such encouragement, and suspected that this was designed to trip up the momentum their candidate expected from his anticipated win. (To which I can only say: The DNC isn’t competent enough to pull off such a plot.) Chaos reigned last night, as campaigns struggled to figure out what to do. Some started hinting that their candidate had won or done very well. Senator Amy Klobuchar showed real political talent and quickly gave a cheery “we outperformed expectations” victory speech early in the night. Being out in front of the other candidates gave her a chance to demonstrate a calm demeanor to a national audience. Other campaigns quickly followed suit, giving hasty overlapping speeches. The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, who seems to have performed poorly, has lawyered up. (Biden may want the Iowa results to remain questionable until he can get to states where he is expected to perform better.) The result of this collective chaos will be more mistrust at a time when mistrust in America’s political system is rampant.