“The fact that we are handing over the keys of American democracy to the military-industrial complex — it’s like giving the keys to the henhouse to a fox and saying, ‘here come in and take whatever you want.’ It’s obviously dangerous.” — Investigative journalist Yasha Levine
May 28, 2019
by Whitney Webb of MintPressNews
Earlier this month, tech giant Microsoft announced its solution to “protect” American elections from interference, which it has named “ElectionGuard.” The election technology is already set to be adopted by half of voting machine manufacturers and some state governments for the 2020 general election. Though it has been heavily promoted by the mainstream media in recent weeks, none of those reports have disclosed that ElectionGuard has several glaring conflicts of interest that greatly undermine its claim aimed at protecting U.S. democracy.
In this investigation, MintPress will reveal how ElectionGuard was developed by companies with deep ties to the U.S. defense and intelligence communities and Israeli military intelligence, as well as the fact that it is far from clear that the technology would prevent foreign or domestic interference with, or the manipulation of, vote totals or other aspects of American election systems.
Election forensics analyst and author Jonathan Simon as well as investigative journalist Yasha Levine, who has written extensively on how the military has long sought to weaponize public technologies including the internet, were consulted for their views on ElectionGuard, its connections to the military-industrial complex and the implication of those connections for American democracy as part of this investigation.
In January, MintPress published an exposé that later went viral on a news-rating company known as Newsguard. Officially aimed at fighting “fake news,” the company’s many connections to U.S. intelligence, a top neoconservative think tank, and self-admitted government propagandists revealed its real intention was to promote corporate media over independent alternatives.
Newsguard was among the first initiatives that comprise Microsoft’s “Defending Democracy” program, a program that the tech giant created under the auspices of protecting American “democratic processes from cyber-enabled interference [which] have become a critical concern.” Through its partnership with Microsoft, Newsguard has been installed in public libraries and universities throughout the country, even while private-sector companies have continued to avoid adopting the problematic browser plug-in.
Now, Microsoft is promoting a new “Defending Democracy” initiative — one equally ridden with glaring conflicts of interest — that threatens American democracy in ways Newsguard never could. ElectionGuard is touted by Microsoft as a system that aims to “make voting secure, more accessible, and more efficient anywhere it’s used in the United States or in democratic nations around the world.” It has since been heavily promoted by mainstream and U.S. government-funded media outlets in preparation for its use in the 2020 general election.
However, according to Jonathan Simon, election forensic analyst and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy, this public relations campaign is likely just cover for more insider control over U.S. elections. “It’s encouraging that after close to two decades of ignoring the security issues with computerized voting, there’s suddenly a scramble to protect our next election that suggests those issues are finally being taken seriously,” Simon told MintPress. “Unfortunately the proposed solution is just more computerization and complexity — which translates to more control by experts and insiders, though of course that is not part of the PR campaign.”
As to the likely identity of those insiders, the fact that Microsoft’s ElectionGuard was developed in tandem with a private military and intelligence contractor whose only investor is the U.S. Department of Defense offers a troubling clue. As a consequence, ElectionGuard’s promise to “secure” elections is dubious, especially given that Microsoft itself is a U.S. military contractor. Furthermore, amid the unfolding scandal of Israeli meddling in foreign elections, Microsoft’s growing ties to Israeli military intelligence and private Israeli cybersecurity firms raise even more concerns about whether ElectionGuard’s real purpose is to “secure” American elections for candidates friendly to the establishment, especially the military-industrial complex.
According to an announcement made in early May by Tom Burt, Microsoft’s Vice President for Customer Security and Trust, ElectionGuard is “a free open-source software development kit (SDK)” that “will make voting secure, more accessible, and more efficient anywhere it’s used.” Burt’s statement further claims that the ElectionGuard system “will enable end-to-end verification of elections, open results to third-party organizations for secure validation, and allow individual voters to confirm their votes were correctly counted.” While ElectionGuard may appear to concern itself only with electronic ballots, the announcement states that the system “is designed to work with systems that use paper ballots” through the use of an optical scanner.
Notably, Microsoft chose to announce ElectionGuard only after it had already partnered “with major election technology suppliers who are exploring the integration of ElectionGuard into their voting systems.” Burt further noted that Microsoft now has “partnerships with election technology suppliers responsible for more than half of the voting machines sold in the U.S.” ElectionGuard partner companies include Democracy Live, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, BPro, MicroVote, and VotingWorks.
Another interesting, and deeply troubling, admission in the Microsoft announcement is that Microsoft’s ElectionGuard development partner, the Portland-based cybersecurity firm Galois, “recently received $10 million in funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a demonstration voting system to help evaluate secure hardware DARPA researchers are developing as part of a separate DARPA program.”
Microsoft’s announcement then notes that “the agency views ensuring the integrity and security of the election process as a critical national security concern and plans to implement the ElectionGuard SDK as part of their effort to enable an end-to-end verifiable component in future versions of their demonstration voting system.”
As deeply troubling as DARPA’s $10 million indirect investment in ElectionGuard may seem, it is merely scratching the surface, as Galois itself is essentially an extension of DARPA in the private cybersecurity industry.
The “private” company whose only investor is the Pentagon
Founded in 1999 by John Launchbury, Galois quickly became close to numerous government agencies that now – according to the Galois website – form the vast majority of its clientele. In fact, Galois currently only lists the following U.S. government agencies in its “clients” section: DARPA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security, “Intelligence Community” (i.e., CIA, NSA, etc.) and NASA. However, other clients of Galois include top U.S. weapons manufacturer General Dynamics. Galois’ stated focus as a company is research and development in advanced computer science, with an emphasis on securing critical systems and cybersecurity. It also dabbles in artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and machine learning.
Though it describes itself as “a privately held U.S.-owned and -operated company,” public records indicate that Galois’ only investors are DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), both of which are divisions of the Department of Defense. In other words, while “officially” a private company, its only investor is the U.S. government, more specifically the Pentagon.
However, the company’s connections to DARPA go even further. The company’s founder and chief scientist John Launchbury, left Galois in 2014 to become program manager and subsequently the director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, which deals with “nation-scale investments in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.” In 2017, he left DARPA and went back to work at Galois as the company’s chief scientist. DARPA’s Information Innovation Office’s official purpose is to develop advanced technology for issues of national security interest, but it also focuses on enhancing “human/machine partnership.”
A Galois spin-off company called Free & Fair, which develops election technology, partnered with Microsoft to produce ElectionGuard. Free & Fair’s website lists its partners as DARPA, Microsoft, voting machine manufacturer VotingWorks, vote tallying software developer Verificatum, the state government of Colorado, and the OSET (Open Source Election Technology) Institute. VotingWorks is a “non-profit” voting machine manufacturer founded by a former Mozilla director of engineering and closely affiliated with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). In addition to Colorado, other states like Minnesota have partnered with Microsoft’s “Defending Democracy” program, but it is unclear if they have adopted or plan to adopt ElectionGuard as a consequence of that partnership.
According to the CDT’s announcement of VotingWorks’ launch:
CDT will serve as a home for VotingWorks until it becomes its own non-profit entity. This partnership means VotingWorks is working closely with the CDT’s experienced team to rapidly ramp up operations and begin in earnest the development of affordable, secure, open-source voting machines for use in US public elections.”
The president and CEO of CDT is Nuala O’Connor, who was Amazon’s Vice President for Compliance and Customer Trust before becoming CDT president. O’Connor was also formerly chief privacy officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has also worked at General Electric and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
CDT’s board includes former Deputy Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator for the White House under Obama and current Principal Counsel at Apple Philippa Scarlett; Microsoft’s corporate vice president, Julie Brill; and Mozilla’s vice president of global policy, Alan Davidson. More troubling, however, is its advisory council, which includes representatives of RAND Corporation, Walmart, Verizon, the Charles Koch Institute, Facebook and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). MintPress readers are likely familiar with AEI, one of the country’s most notorious neoconservative think tanks, known for employing John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz, among others. One of Newsguard’s co-founders, Louis Gordon Crovitz, is also affiliated with the AEI.
Another partner of Galois’ Free & Fair is the Open Source Election Technology Institute (OSET Institute, or OSETI), whose flagship initiative is called “TrustTheVote.” One of OSETI’s co-founders and its current CTO is E. John Sebes, who has previously done work for DARPA and DHS. OSETI’s strategic board of advisors includes Chris Barr of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in Newsguard; former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling; former Deputy Director of the NSA William Cromwell; former head of DHS’ Cybersecurity Directorate and former DARPA project manager Doug Maughan; and Norm Ornstein of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project.
Aside from the numerous links to major corporations, government agencies and neoconservative think tanks, of particular concern to Free & Fair’s mission to develop “secure” election technology are its connections to DHS. This is because, before, during and after the 2016 election, DHS was caught attempting to hack into state electoral systems in at least three states — Georgia, Indiana and Idaho — with similar accusations also being made in Kentucky and West Virginia. In Indiana’s case, the DHS’ attempted hacks occurred nearly 15,000 times over a 46 day period. In an official answer to Georgia’s claim the DHS had tried to penetrate its electoral system’s firewall, DHS which initially denied being behind the attempted hack, later responded that the attempted breach was “legitimate business” aimed at “verifying a professional license administered by the state.” Some of the states targeted by DHS had turned down the department’s offer to “shore up” election systems prior to the 2016 election.
Compare this to the alleged Russian hacking into state electoral systems, which – to date – includes only the claim from the FBI that hackers alleged to be affiliated with Russian military intelligence penetrated voter registration data in two counties in Florida. That alleged hack, the details of which remain classified and for which no evidence of it even happening has been made publicly available, did not result in any alterations to data or other manipulation of those systems, per FBI officials. The DHS, in contrast, attempted to hack into the systems, not of individual counties, but entire states and acknowledged that it did so, even though they chose not to use the work “hack” and defended their activity. While focusing on foreign — and especially Russian — interference may make for a more patriotic story, the dangers posed by domestic actors with at least as great a stake in U.S. election outcomes appear to have been grossly underestimated and virtually ignored by the media.
Free & Fair’s partnerships with groups tied to DHS seem to further undermine its stated mission of providing secure and trustworthy election technology, in addition to its parent company’s deep ties to the Department of Defense, especially DARPA.
Russian-American investigative journalist, and author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, Yasha Levine explained to MintPress why DARPA is likely interested in U.S. election system software like ElectionGuard and why the agency’s interest is dangerous for American democracy:
Election systems are now being increasingly seen as a theater for warfare between competing nation states. So, if you are DARPAand your reason for existence is to create hi-tech weapons for the future, then you are going to be looking at electronic voting systems as a theater of war where the country could be attacked by a foreign adversary. That explains why DARPA is involved.
But DARPA and some of these companies involved can also be seen as foes of Americans’ popular will… We can hypothesize about what’s really going on and what their intentions are, but clearly the Pentagon R&D Lab for war should not be anywhere near America’s electoral system because it represents a huge and powerful and unaccountable force in the American political system whose interests often run counter to democracy.
The fact that we are handing over the keys of American democracy to the military-industrial complex — it’s like giving the keys to the henhouse to a fox and saying, ‘here come in and take whatever you want.’ It’s obviously dangerous.”
From mind control to vote control?
It’s worth briefly describing why DARPA’s role at Galois is of concern. This stems mainly from the fact that DARPA is currently developing Orwellian and nightmarish “Terminator” technologies — including efforts to implant chips into soldiers’ brains, replace most human soldiers with robot soldiers, and create killer “Terminator” robots — and autonomous artificial-intelligence targeting systems that will use social media to identify potential targets.
In 2015, Michael Goldblatt — then-director of the DARPA subdivision Defense Sciences Office (DSO), which oversees the “super soldier” program — told journalist Annie Jacobsen that he saw no difference between “having a chip in your brain that could help control your thoughts” and “a cochlear implant that helps the deaf hear.” When pressed about the unintended consequences of such technology, Goldblatt stated that “there are unintended consequences for everything.”
It goes without saying that the fact that an institution currently developing what essentially amounts to mind-control technology, and that also sees nothing wrong with such technology, has suddenly become so interested in creating and funding with millions of dollars a “free, fair and secure” election system to protect American democracy from interference, is beyond odd and suggests an ulterior motive.
Similarly, Microsoft’s claim that it “will not charge for using ElectionGuard and will not profit from partnering with election technology suppliers that incorporate it into their products” should also raise eyebrows. Considering that Microsoft has a long history of predatory practices, including price gouging for its OneCare security software, its offering of ElectionGuard software free of charge is tellingly out of step for the tech giant and suggests an ulterior motive behind Microsoft’s recent philanthropic interest in “defending democracy.”
In addition, Microsoft’s dual role as a major technology company and a contractor for both the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community should also raise red flags. Indeed, Microsoft has made it abundantly clear that it plans to forge ever closer ties with the U.S. government, especially after Microsoft President Brad Smith announced last December that Microsoft is “going to provide the US military with access to the best technology … all the technology we create. Full stop.” A month prior to that statement, Microsoft secured a $480 million contract with the Pentagon to provide the U.S. military with its HoloLens technology.
This close relationship that Microsoft is building with the Pentagon may explain the company’s ulterior motive in creating and promoting ElectionGuard, as promoting the largely DARPA-funded election technology could help improve Microsoft’s chances in its current bid for a $10 billion cloud services contract with the Pentagon.
Furthermore, given the numerous corporate connections as well as the connections to the AEI, it could be argued that Microsoft and Galois’ intimate involvement in this system could be to help “guard” elections from candidates who threaten to regulate or rein in their industries, particularly the military-industrial complex. Of course, the claim that ElectionGuard is “open source” is meant to mitigate such speculation, as the open-source nature of the technology ostensibly means that no discrete code is hidden that could be used to manipulate results. However, as will be shown shortly, the fact that a technology is open-source does not necessarily mean that the data that passes through that technology is not open to manipulation from a third party.
ElectionGuard isn’t immune to manipulation
Microsoft’s press release announcing ElectionGuard highlights its claim that its system would make elections more verifiable, secure, and auditable; be open source-based; and improve the voting experience. While all of these things sound nice enough, there is reason to believe — based on the description given by Microsoft — that some of these claims are dubious and misleading. Unfortunately, for now, analysis of ElectionGuard is restricted to Microsoft’s description of the software as it is not yet available for public examination. The ElectionGuard software kit is expected to be released later this year on the GitHub platform.
The first aspect of the “verifiable” claim relates to a voter tracking system, where each voter is given a unique tracking ID which allows them “to follow an encrypted version of the vote through the entire election process via a web portal provided by election authorities.” Voters can choose the option of confirming “that their trackers and encrypted votes accurately reflect their selections.”
Yet Microsoft notes that “once a vote is cast, neither the tracker nor any data provided through the web portal can be used to reveal the contents of the vote,” meaning that while a person can track whether their vote was counted, they cannot verify whether the content of the vote (i.e., who they voted for) is counted correctly or not. Microsoft goes on to note that only “after the election is complete” will the tracker page allow the content of the vote to be seen.
The second “verifiability” component of ElectionGuard “is an open specification – or a road map – which allows anyone to write an election verifier.” Microsoft then notes that this open specification would mean that “voters, candidates, news media and any observers can run verifiers of their own or downloaded from sources of their choosing to confirm tabulations are as reported.”
Microsoft describes these two features as constituting “end-to-end verifiability” (E2E-V), which Free & Fair describes as “cryptographic technology that enables voters to vote in a normal fashion in a polling place and have evidence that the election is trustworthy.”
Another focus of ElectionGuard is security, for which the system employs “homomorphic encryption, which enables mathematical procedures – like counting – to be done with fully encrypted data” and this allows individually encrypted votes to be “combined to form an encrypted tabulation of all votes which can then be decrypted to produce an election tally that protects voter privacy.” Notably, homomorphic encryption is the only ElectionGuard security measure named in the press release.
Election forensics analyst Jonathan Simon, author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy, was not fully persuaded by the E2E-V claim. “Pardon my skepticism,” Simon told MintPress, “but I’ve read Microsoft’s ‘good news’ ElectionGuard flyer and it reminds me very much of the flyers and PR material long served up by the vendors and programmers of the current voting equipment — the very computers that IT experts discovered could be hacked by outsiders and programmed to add, delete, and shift votes by insiders.”
Right now, for example, they’re hawking expensive and completely unnecessary ballot-marking devices (BMDs) that turn your votes into a barcode, a code that no voter can read or verify. Very slick but yet another level of non-transparency, another step away from public, observable vote-counting, and another vector for fraud.
I’ve spent the last 17 years examining vote-count patterns and drawing attention to a parade of egregious red flags indicative of computerized vote-count manipulation. It has been a system designed for concealment and about as non-transparent as a process can be. It would be great if more advanced technology would bring transparency at last, as Microsoft seems to promise.
But what I see so far is even more complexity — encryption that, whether open source or not, requires the most rarefied experts to penetrate or understand. And just a short step to full-on internet voting — even more convenient and about as secure as, say, Facebook.
Pending a demonstration showing with perfect layperson-accessible clarity how a third-party entity can verify aggregate vote-counts without having to take on faith some step in the pipeline (individual verification that ‘your’ vote was ‘counted’ is a useless bell-and-whistle), it still feels like the same old ‘trust us’ game. I’m willing to be persuaded but the historical context here is very cautionary.”
Simon’s concerns reflect some controversial aspects of the ElectionGuard approach. While encryption would ostensibly protect votes from tampering and thus elections results, it is important to point out that homomorphic encryption is a malleable form of encryption.
According to Brilliant.org:
A malleable crypto-system is one in which anyone can intercept a cipher text, transform it into another cipher text, and then decrypt that into a plain text that makes sense. Malleability is generally considered undesirable in a crypto-system. Imagine you’re trying to send the message ‘I love you’ to your friend using encryption. You encrypt it and send it off. But, it is intercepted by a hacker on the way. All they see is some cipher text, but they can change that cipher text to something that will decrypt to ‘I hate you’ when your friend tries to decrypt it. That is why malleability is not usually wanted.”
If that’s the case, then what stops a “hacker” or another third party — say a U.S. government agency like the NSA or a political operative with access to the electoral cyber-pipeline — from changing a person’s vote from Democrat to Republican or vice versa, or altering the encrypted tabulation of all votes?
While homomorphic encryption seems a reasonable choice in one sense, for allowing votes to be tallied without decrypting, there is an added layer of concern given Microsoft’s past, particularly Microsoft’s history of actually working with U.S. government agencies to bypass encryption.
Indeed, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that Microsoft actually helped the National Security Agency bypass its own encryption so the agency could decrypt messages sent via certain Microsoft platforms including Outlook.com Web chat, Hotmail email service, and Skype. In addition, in 2009, a senior NSA official testified before Congress that Microsoft and the NSA worked together to create its Windows 7 operating system, leading some to worry that Microsoft had built a “backdoor” into the operating system to aid government surveillance activities. Now that Microsoft’s ties to the U.S. military and intelligence community are deeper than ever, it begs the question whether Microsoft’s covert cooperation with government agencies to the detriment of consumers is also a factor guiding its role in creating and promoting ElectionGuard.
Furthermore, with Microsoft’s president having vowed to hand over all its technologies to the U.S. military, one wonders if this type of encryption and methodology was not chosen on purpose, especially given the fact that the NSA is quite accomplished at breaking much more secure types of encryption even without help from Microsoft.
Another of Microsoft’s talking points used to promote ElectionGuard is the fact that it will be open source, meaning the program’s code will be publicly available, a move apparently aimed at assuaging concerns that ElectionGuard’s code could contain hidden manipulations or vulnerabilities.
However, investigative journalist Yasha Levine likened Microsoft’s promotion of ElectionGuard’s still unreleased open source code to a “PR move.” Levine told MintPress:
Open source inevitably has bugs and vulnerabilities that are there accidentally because all code has vulnerabilities. This is true for open source and closed source systems. Open source just means that people can look at it, but then that code has to be run through a compiler that actually runs an executable program. So there you already have a degree of abstraction and separation from the open source code. But even if the executable code and the source code are the same, there are bugs which can be exploited.
So, what open source does is give a veneer of openness that leads one to think that thousands of people have probably vetted the code and flagged any bugs in it. But, actually very few people have the time and the ability to look at this code. So this idea that open source code is more transparent isn’t really true because few people are looking at it.”
Levine went on to note that there are many examples of open source systems — including widely used open source systems — having major vulnerabilities that go undetected for years. One of the best examples, in Levine’s opinion, is the “Heartbleed” bug, which was a security vulnerability in the open source OpenSSL software, a system that allows for the basic encryption of web traffic by encrypting “http” connections. The Heartbleed allowed hackers access to the memory of data servers for an estimated half a million websites and went undetected for years, despite the fact that OpenSSL is an open source system.
Levine also underscored the fact that both American and foreign intelligence agencies “more than any other person or group” are involved in seeking out such vulnerabilities and exploits, which they keep hidden from the public in order to give themselves an advantage in cyberwarfare. Some of the CIA’s lists of such exploits or vulnerabilities were revealed in the WikiLeaks Vault 7 release.
Microsoft’s ties to Israeli military intelligence
ElectionGuard is currently being promoted as a key step towards preventing the “interference” of a foreign government or state actor in U.S. elections in the future. Yet, there is no guarantee that ElectionGuard itself is free from foreign influence, given that Microsoft has deep ties to the military intelligence community of a foreign nation: Israel.
Microsoft’s links to the Israeli military intelligence unit known as Unit 8200, which will be discussed momentarily, are troubling for more than a few reasons. The first is the fact that the main developer of a new election software system aimed at protecting U.S. elections from “foreign interference” has close ties to a foreign military intelligence agency. It goes without saying that if the main developer of ElectionGuard had such ties with another foreign military intelligence agency, such as Russian military intelligence, the software would not stand a chance of adoption in the U.S. and it would likely be a national scandal. The fact that Microsoft’s ties to Israeli military intelligence have not troubled proponents of ElectionGuard suggests that the problem is not foreign interference or influence as long as the foreign nation involved is an ally, not an adversary.
Arguably yet a graver concern in terms of the Microsoft-Unit 8200 relationship and Electionguard, is the recent slew of scandals surrounding Israeli interference in foreign elections all around the world. The most recent of those scandals involved the Israeli company the Archimedes Group and its social-media influence disinformation campaigns to target the elections in several African and Asian nations. According to the Times of Israel, the CEO of the Archimedes Group, Elinadav Heymann, is a former senior intelligence agent for the Israeli military. The group spent an estimated $800,000 on misleading Facebook ads as part of its disinformation campaign, a sum much larger than the $100,000 alleged to have been spent by a Russian company on a similar disinformation campaign in the 2016 election.
Prior to this latest scandal, several private Israeli companies were accused of seeking to collude with the Trump campaign in 2016, namely the now-shuttered PSY-Group — which was run by former Israeli intelligence operatives — and Wikistrat, which also has close ties to Israeli intelligence. The fact that private Israeli firms with ties to Israeli intelligence and Israeli military intelligence have been caught in recent election meddling scandals, including in the U.S., should be a major red flag when examining the many conflicts of interests that enshroud ElectionGuard’s developers and how those conflicts may inform the program’s functionality.
Microsoft has long had a presence in Israel, which dates back to 1989. However, in recent years, they have invested in and acquired in several companies with deep ties to the IDF’s Unit 8200.
In 2015, Microsoft acquired Israeli cloud security company Adallom for $320 million, which would go on to serve as a new foundation for Microsoft’s Research and Development (R&D) Center in Israel, which has been active since 1989. Adallom’s product was subsequently rebranded as Microsoft Cloud App Security. Adallom’s CEO and co-founder is Assaf Rappaport, who now heads Microsoft’s R&D Center in Tel Aviv. Rappaport, among other things, is a graduate of the elite IDF “Talpiot” program and also served in the Israeli military intelligence unit known as Unit 8200.
Unit 8200 is an elite unit of the Israeli Intelligence corps that is part of the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence and is involved mainly in signal intelligence (i.e., surveillance), cyberwarfare and code decryption. It is often described as the Israeli equivalent of the NSA and Peter Roberts, senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, characterized the unit in an interview with the Financial Times as “probably the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world and stand[ing] on a par with the NSA in everything except scale.”
Notably, the NSA and Unit 8200 have collaborated on projects such as the infamous Stuxnet virus as well as the Duqu malware, a sophisticated strain of which was used to spy on countries engaged in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. In addition, the NSA is known to work with veterans of Unit 8200 in the private sector, such as when the NSA hired two Israeli companies, whose executives are linked to Unit 8200, to create backdoors to all the major U.S. telecommunications and major tech companies including Facebook, Microsoft and Google. The unit is also known for spying on civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories for “coercion purposes” — i.e., gathering info for blackmail — and also for spying on Palestinian-Americans via an intelligence sharing agreement with the NSA.
However, Microsoft’s connections to Unit 8200 go far beyond Adallom. Another example is Microsoft’s considerable investment in Illusive Networks, an Israeli cybersecurity firm created by Team8, in which Microsoft has also invested heavily. Team8’s CEO and co-founder is Nadav Zafrir, who used to lead Unit 8200, and two of the company’s three other co-founders are also veterans of Unit 8200. Former CEO of Google (now Alphabet), Eric Schmidt, is a major backer of Team8.
Team8 has cozied up to former NSA directors, with Zafrir giving presentations alongside former NSA director Keith Alexander, for example. Those efforts eventually culminated in Team8 hiring retired Admiral Mike Rogers, former director of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, as a “senior adviser.” “I’ve worked with the highly talented resources of Unit 8200 in the past and so when I had the opportunity to join Team8, I knew this was a rare and valued opportunity,” Rogers said of his hire. Team8 described the decision to hire Rogers as being “instrumental in helping strategize” Team8’s expansion in the United States.
Rogers’ hire by a firm headed by the former boss of a foreign military intelligence agency drew sharp criticism from veterans of the NSA. One of those ex-NSA employees — Jake Williams, a veteran of NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking unit — told CyberScoop that “Rogers is not being brought into this role because of his technical experience …It’s purely because of his knowledge of classified operations and his ability to influence many in the U.S. government and private-sector contractors.”
In addition to Microsoft’s ties to Unit 8200 through its connections to Adallom, Illusive Networks and Team8, Microsoft is also developing direct ties with Israel’s military, with the IDF having adopted the company’s HoloLens technology. The IDF’s C2 Systems Department has been using a pair of HoloLens devices to adapt the technology for use in war for the past three years, a precursor to what is sure to be a lucrative military contract for Microsoft, considering that their HoloLens contract with the U.S. military was nearly half a billion dollars.
ElectionGuard a bloodless coup for the military-industrial complex
Following the 2016 election and the heavily promoted concerns about “Russian hackers” infiltrating election systems, federal agencies like the NSA have used that threat to lobby for greater control over American democracy. For instance, during a 2017 hearing then-NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers stated:
If we define election infrastructure as critical to the nation and we are directed by the president or the secretary, I can apply our capabilities in partnership with others – because we won’t be the only ones, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI – I can apply those capabilities proactively with some of the owners of those systems.”
With Rogers — who is now employed by the Microsoft-funded and Israeli military intelligence-connected company Team8 — having lobbied for the direct involvement of U.S. government agencies, including the NSA and DHS, in supervising elections, it seems likely that ElectionGuard will help enable those agencies to surveill U.S. elections with particular ease, especially given Microsoft’s past of behind-the-scenes collaboration with the NSA.
Given that ElectionGuard’s system as currently described is neither as “secure” nor as “verifiable” as Microsoft is claiming, it seems clear that the conflicts of interests of its developers, particularly their connections to the U.S. and Israeli militaries, are a recipe for disaster and tantamount to a takeover of the American election system by the military-industrial complex.
“The great irony, and tragedy, here,” according to election forensics analyst Jonathan Simon, “is that we could so easily go the opposite direction and quickly solve all the problems of election security if we got the computers out of the voting process and were willing to collectively invest the modicum of effort needed for humans to count votes observably in public as they once did. If democracy is not worth that effort, perhaps we don’t deserve it.”