'Expect The Worst': Transparency Group Warned Against Using App That Botched Iowa Caucus

The more we learn about how the Iowa Democratic Party handled the 2020 Iowa Caucus, the more we suspect that this massive malfunction wasn't simply an accident.

First, as we reported earlier, the New York Times revealed that the IowaReporterApp (as it was called) was supposed to allow precinct captains to seamlessly report their results to party officials in Des Moines. Instead, the app failed to relay accurate data from the precincts, leading to a chaotic result further muddied by Pete Buttigieg's decision to declare himself the winner, demonstrating some ace media manipulation and earning him the nickname "Pete the Cheat" among bitter Sanders supporters who are probably jealous that they didn't think of that first.

The Iowa Dems have promised to release partial results after 5 pm ET, though the Biden campaign is already working hard to make sure that doesn't happen.

But the more we learn about the rollout of IowaReporterApp, the more we suspect that this wasn't an accident, but rather a deliberate attempt to scuttle a primary that most polls showed would be won by the insurgent socialist Bernie Sanders. It's difficult to overstate the party leadership's antipathy for Sanders.

Which is why this report from Vice caught our eye. Between Vice and the NYT, reporters' conversations with precinct captains suggest that the flaws with the app were apparent even earlier than the state party would admit. Multiple Iowa Democratic county chairs said they had struggled to use the app, which they were forced to download from the TestFairy as it was still unfinished on the day of the caucus. Alternatively, when they tried using the phone system that has been used to record caucus results for decades, the lines seemed to be perpetually busy. 

One precinct captain said they were kept on hold for more than an hour relatively early in the evening, at a time when the line should have been dead, or at least relatively inactive.

Here's another unsettling detail from the NYT story: Shadow, the sketchy, Buttigieg and Biden-linked company that developed the app, has also been contracted to develop projects for the Nevada Democratic Party (which will hold the next caucus after a handful of earlier primaries), as well as by multiple presidential campaigns (including Buttigieg and Biden). Shadow's involvement in building the app was kept secret by Democratic officials for reasons that weren't immediately obvious to us.

But the most damning detail from the Vice report comes from the head of a pro-transparency group who said he warned the DNC weeks ago that the app would fail - but the Dems went ahead and used it anyway, despite the fact that it was virtually guaranteed to fail.

Cybersecurity and voting experts said they were not surprised the app failed, and that the rollout of the app was so haphazard and irresponsible that its failure was a "predictable outcome."

"We were really concerned about the fact there was so much opacity. I said over and over again trust is the product of transparency times communication. The DNC steadfastly refused to offer any transparency. It was hard to know what to expect except the worst," Gregory Miller, cofounder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, which publicly warned the IDP against using the app weeks ago, told Motherboard. "I don’t want to say I told you so, but..."

And even if nobody had specifically told the Iowa Dems that the Shadow-built app, which was rushed to be completed in under two months, best practices should have precluded its use, according to another cyber security expert. Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science and law at Georgetown, told the NYT that introducing apps like this in the middle of a complicated electoral process is seriously unwise. Most experts in the field should have understood that relying on Shadow's app was a marked departure from best practices.

Any type of app or program that relies on using a cellphone network to deliver results is vulnerable to problems both on the app and on the phones being used to run it, he said.

"The consensus of all experts who have been thinking about this is unequivocal," Mr. Blaze added. "Internet and mobile voting should not be used at this time in civil elections."

Any technology, he said, should be tested and retested by the broader cybersecurity community before being publicly introduced, to test for anything ranging from a small bug to a major vulnerability.

"I think the most important rule of thumb in introducing technology into voting is be extremely conservative," he said.

Shadow has reportedly released a statement apologizing for the errors, though some claimed that the twitter account that published the statement is a fake.

But even if they were genuinely contrite, the fact that they released the app through the TestFairy testing platform, which is typically used for apps that are still being beta tested, suggests an almost galling level of negligence.

Another cybersecurity expert quoted by Vice put it even more colorfully: he said the Dems had "opened a can of whupass on themselves" by robbing their primary process of whatever shreds of credibility remained after 2016.

"When you're vetting an app for something like this, you need to do load testing, regression testing, pen testing," Miller said. "It’s not just the app, it’s the deployment process. No one should ever deploy an app like this and have a popup that says this isn't safe for your phone."

"Everyone from bots to Republicans literally devoured this scene and sowed a lot of seeds of confusion and chaos. You don’t deliver an app days before the event and call it good. Not with this much riding on this," Miller said. "In a system, in a world where we are questioning every aspect of elections and whether they can be trusted, why would you do anything to fuel a disinformation attack, and that’s exactly what the Democrats have done. They’ve opened a can of whupass on themselves."

At this point, even if they release partial results Tuesday night, the malfunction will have already robbed Bernie Sanders of the front-runner momentum he would have gained had he won the contest, as numerous polls suggested he would.

The whole fiasco suggests the DNC still hasn't learned the lesson from 2016. And with the Dems looking more incompetent than ever, some are already trying to revive the Trump-Russia tampering narrative. But after everything this country and its people have witnessed over the past three years, do they really expect people to believe that?

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