Ensuring Election Integrity: 5 Questions with Dr. Rebecca Mercuri

Digital forensics expert will speak at 4th Annual President’s Forum on Data

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 28, 2017) – As group of national and international cybersecurity leaders gather at UAlbany on March 2 at the 4th Annual President’s Forum on Data, a major topic of discussion is likely to be the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the associated allegations of fraud.

Digital forensics expert Rebecca Mercuri, who will speak at the forum, has researched these issues, in particular how computer security is used to ensure election system integrity. Mercuri is the founding president of Notable Software Inc., a consulting firm specializing in digital forensics, cybersecurity and expert witness testimony. Mercuri's focus is security analytics, standards and certification, and she performs investigations for a broad range of cases where digital data, hardware and software are involved.

Mercuri defended her doctoral dissertation "Electronic Vote Tabulation: Checks & Balances" at the University of Pennsylvania, just 11 days before the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Her testimony and opinions were sought in Bush v. Gore and referenced in briefs presented to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mercuri has provided formal testimony to Congress, and to state, federal and international bodies influencing election legislation, standards and best practices guidelines.

What are you working on now?

My research interests have primarily focused on computer security; my employment is as a digital forensics expert, primarily for criminal defense. In this work, I research and provide investigation and testimony on a broad range of digital technology subjects, typically involving real-time systems, the Internet, malware, hacking and even the dark web. I also provide certification evaluations, such as for products that are being considered for deployment in secure environments, and evaluate forensic hardware and software tools that may be useful in my work.

What made you decide to pursue your field?

Computer security and forensics are a good match with my interests and skills in computer science, computer engineering, politics and the law. These are also areas of research where there are many unsolved and non-trivial problems that need to be addressed, which I find very interesting to contemplate.

Rebecca Mercuri
Dr. Rebecca Mercuri

What constitutes voter fraud and fraud claims about November’s presidential election legitimate?

There is a great deal of confusion regarding what constitutes "election fraud" versus "voter fraud." To put it simply, voter fraud typically involves individuals who have inappropriately registered to vote, and/or who have voted illegally. Election fraud, on the other hand, encompasses a broad range of issues pertaining to the accuracy and integrity of the end-to-end voting process, such as assuring that ballots are cast and counted as per the voters' intentions, as well as ensuring that the vote totals are aggregated properly at the municipal, county and state levels.

Thus far, there has been no actual proof that significant fraud of either type resulted in the November 2016 election results. But we actually cannot know for sure what happened, since appropriate checks and balances that would better secure integrity and prevent fraud have been prevented from being implemented.

How can election administrators do a better job of protecting against voter and election fraud?

The enforcement and protection abilities of election administrators with respect to voter fraud are limited by laws that have failed to properly address both residence and citizenship. For example, a driver's license may suffice as a government-issued photo ID to prove residence, but it does not confirm citizenship; while a U.S. passport can be used as a proof of citizenship, but it does not confirm one's home address.

As for election fraud, the Help America Vote Act of 2002's mandate for replacement of punch-card and mechanical lever systems resulted in the hasty procurement of self-auditing voting machines, most of which provide no ability for election administrators to confirm the correctness of the vote tallies. Some states that purchased optically scanned or voter-verified systems subsequently passed laws making manual recounting illegal, thus thwarting the use of the paper as an independent checking method against the electronic tallies.

Both the registration and voting processes rely largely on honesty and trust, which are not sufficient to ensure accuracy and integrity in such an adversarial process. Election administrators should work with legislators at state and federal levels to close the multitude of loopholes that enable election tampering to occur and persist.

What are you looking forward to about the March 2nd Forum on Data?

The proper management and processing of data is tremendously critical to decision making, whether it be with regard to business concerns, environmental issues, political trends, separating fake facts from real journalistic research, and so on. The choice of Data as this year's Forum topic is timely and should provide for a lively and insightful exchange.

Learn more or register for the 4th Annual President’s Forum on Data: The New Game in Cyber Security: Security Analytics.

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