The Technology 202: Google is working with Nevada caucus officials to prevent an Iowa repeat

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The Nevada Democratic Party announced a new plan to tally and report its Feb. 22 caucus results after the debacle in Iowa caused officials in the next caucus state to abruptly shift gears because of security concerns.

Officials there are relying on web-based tools — including a “caucus calculator” accessed through a secure Google web form — to do the complicated math resulting in Democratic presidential candidates being awarded delegates in the heated nomination fight. They will also receive preconfigured iPads purchased by the party to report results, officials announced in a memo to presidential campaigns.

The state party is consulting with professionals at Google to ensure they’re using the products in a secure manner, according to a memo shared with The Technology 202. They also said they’re doing testing of the caucus calculator with precinct chairs at every experience level to ensure it’s user-friendly. That could help the party avoid many of the same problems that officials had in Iowa, where many county chairs struggled to use a new app. 

The new strategy came after a quickly devised app made by Shadow, Inc., faltered in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. Nevada had planned to use the app, but switched course after the debacle.

“We understand just how important it is that we get this right and protect the integrity of Nevadans’ votes,” Molly Forgey, a Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman, told me. “That’s why we quickly made the decision to drop the app and why we’ve been working around the clock to ensure that what happened in Iowa will not happen here. We’re not using the app or vendor responsible for what happened in Iowa. Instead, we’ve streamlined and simplified the process to make it secure, low-tech and user-friendly.”

But some election security experts have warned the party’s hasty shift to a new system ahead of next week’s vote has left little time for adequate testing and they warn there could still be problems. 

David Becker, the head of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told me the problems facing Nevada are primarily administrative not technical. He said one of the biggest challenges will be training volunteers who have no experience running elections in a very short time period. 

“They’re trying, but I think they’ve got a real challenge here, and I expect problems (hopefully significantly less severe than Iowa),” he told me. “A caucus like this is prone to problems due to that lack of expertise, regardless of what tools or apps are being used.” 

He said one way to mitigate problems for the majority of voters would be to concentrate efforts to train caucus organizers in Clark County because the vast majority of votes in the state are cast there. 

There are also persistent cybersecurity concerns about the party’s rapid rollout of the calculator, which will be installed on more than 2,000 party-purchased iPads to accommodate every precinct in the state. My colleague Joseph Marks previously reported there are major concerns about the iPads probably being connected to the Internet, a short time frame to test the procedures and a lack of transparency. 

Gregory Miller, chief operating officer of the OSET Institute, a nonprofit election technology organization, told Joe it’s “terrifying” that the party is introducing the technology so close to the caucus. “This all should have been baked in several months ago,” he told Joseph. 

Nevada Democrats say they consulted with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the Democratic National Committee on best practices. Pressure is mounting on the DNC to ensure the process goes smoothly, especially as new details emerge about its involvement in Iowa. The DNC has sought to distance itself from the Shadow app, but Yahoo News reported yesterday that a copy of the contract and internal correspondence demonstrate that national party officials had extensive oversight over the development of the app. 

DNC communications director Xochitl Hinojosa told Yahoo the party wanted access to the app only to address potential security concerns. “We requested access to the tool solely for the purpose of doing security testing,” Hinojosa said, disputing the idea the DNC was involved in app development. 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: A select group of researchers received access to internal data on how content is shared on Facebook nearly two years after the company first promised access, Jeff Horwitz at the Wall Street Journal reports. The initiative, which was waylaid by privacy concerns, could lead to a better understanding of how information, including disinformation, spreads on the social network.

Releasing the data in a way that protected user privacy required substantial research and resources — 20 full-time staff members and $11 million — Facebook said in a statement.

But the delays came at a cost to some researchers. Social Science One, the project that partnered with Facebook, lost support from multiple backers including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation after it appeared the promised data wouldn’t materialize. 

And critics such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which argued in 2018 that the project violated the company’s agreements with regulators, aren’t placated. “We are not satisfied that the concerns in our original letter were addressed,” EPIC President Marc Rotenberg said.

Social Science One researchers expect research from the data could result in the next few months. Facebook said it plans to expand access to the data.

NIBBLES: The Securities and Exchange Commission is again scrutinizing Tesla, less than a year after chief executive Elon Musk resolved a dispute with the agency over his tweets, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. The SEC “issued a subpoena seeking information concerning certain financial data and contracts including Tesla’s regular financing arrangements,” the company said in an annual financial disclosure yesterday. 

The revelation could dent investor confidence, which just recently recovered after Musk made a number of high-profile missteps. “Investor confidence has surged on two straight quarters of profits and Musk’s emergence from high-profile legal and regulatory scrutiny, though the recent disclosure complicates that narrative,” Faiz writes.

Musk’s tweets have twice drawn scrutiny from the SEC for allegedly misleading investors, most recently when he tweeted a year ago that Tesla was on pace to produce more vehicles than its production estimates projected. The company didn’t disclose specifics on what prompted the current investigation.

The Justice Department also asked the company for information about those tweets, the company disclosed. Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. SEC spokesman Ryan White declined to comment. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into issues including updates to Tesla’s battery management software on its Model S and X vehicles and to its Autopilot driver-assistance software.

BYTES: Federal prosecutors charged Chinese tech giant Huawei with racketeering and a decades-long conspiracy to steal trade secrets yesterday, my colleague Jeanne Whalen reports

Prosecutors also charged Huawei with violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. They allege the company installed equipment that helped Iran’s government perform domestic surveillance. Its subsidiary also employed an Iranian citizen, they allege.

The new charges come as the Trump administration’s campaign to persuade foreign governments not to allow Huawei to provide equipment for 5G wireless networks struggles. U.S. officials claim they have evidence Huawei retains backdoors into its equipment that Beijing could use for spying.

Huawei vehemently denies the new charges and allegations that it provides China access for spying. 

“This new indictment is part of the Justice Department’s attempt to irrevocably damage Huawei’s reputation and its business for reasons related to competition rather than law enforcement,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The new indictment escalates a January 2019 case, when federal prosecutors charged Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with bank and wire fraud. 

PUBLIC CLOUD

— News from the public sector:

PRIVATE CLOUD

— News from the private sector:

Retailers are replacing scales with video systems that some say are better at catching mis-scanned items and stopping transactions in progress only when it is necessary.

The Wall Street Journal

#TRENDING

—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

A 14-year-old in Atlanta created one of the biggest dances on the internet. But nobody really knows that.

The New York Times

CHECK-INS

— Coming up:

  • The Department of Justice will hold a public workshop in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 19, 2020, titled “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability”
  • The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a field hearing on Thursday, February 20, at 2 pm at the Prince George County Central Wellness Center on the importance of rural broadband access.

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