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Film Review: “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” Grimly Profiles the End of Democracy

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 26th, 2020

Film poster: “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections”

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections (Simon Ardizzone/Russell Michaels/Sarah Teale, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.

Directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale are very concerned about our elections and want you to be, too. Their 2006 documentary Hacking Documentary (helmed by Ardizzone and Michaels and produced by Teale) took a hard look at the voting machines then in use and concluded that they were ripe for easy manipulation. Sadly, the warnings of cybersecurity experts went unheeded and, flash-forward 10 years, those same machines were used in the 2016 elections. How could so many officials willingly use such imperfect equipment? It’s a combination of wishful thinking, willful blindness and blind corruption.

In Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, the merry threesome revisit their previous topic, only now with even greater urgency. Returning as a main protagonist is Finnish data-security consultant Harri Hursti, founding partner of Nordic Innovation Labs. He is our guide through the depressing realities of America’s refusal to take the extremely dire problems with its voting machines seriously. Without the guarantee of free and fair elections, no democracy is safe.

Harri Hursti. Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

The questions multiply. Why wouldn’t election officials care more? Do these officials, and the politicians who surround them, have the knowledge to understand the technology they oversee? What are the actual challenges posed by this often archaic technology, or by the ostensibly more secure technology of newer machines? Is it possible to hack a machine that is not connected to the internet at the time of voting? Does one, in fact, need to change votes to change the outcome of an election, or is it enough to simply alter key aspects of registration lists that then disenfranchise large swaths of voters, or make it painfully difficult for them to vote? And so on and so forth. It boggles the mind that we have allowed our elections to become so fraught.

Who benefits? Those for whom control matters above all, and those who, in opposition, wish to show chaos. The former are corrupt politicians, who in this day and age are primarily Republicans, and the latter are foreign actors, who today are primarily Russians. The people of this country are under attack and, as this gripping, disturbing film makes clear, have been for a while. It’s exceedingly probable that the results of the last presidential election were not legitimate; the same holds true for many statewide races in 2018 (we see you, Brian Kemp of Georgia). I suppose if your side is in power, then who cares, right? But what about the precedent it sets for the future? In the past, after all, Democrats have not been immune from corruption, even if today they are the party that pushes for enfranchising the greatest number of voters possible. In addition, does anyone really want a hostile outside enemy in charge?

(from left) Harri Hursti and Maggie MacAlpine carry voting machines they purchased. Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Hursti is not alone in his peripatetic journey, dashing across the United States and hopping home to Finland to walk its lonely border with Russia. He is joined at one point by business partner Margaret MacAlpine, as together they purchase, for $75 off of eBay, the Diebold/Dominion AccuVote TSX voting machine that is, supposedly, in part secure because no hacker has physical access to it. We watch as they enter a warehouse full of these discarded devices; we gasp in horror when they reveal that this same model was used by many states in 2016. Incredible, but true.

We also travel to Defcon, the world’s largest hacking conference, where attendees demonstrate the ease with which they can break into a diverse variety of current machines. Representatives from the three companies that make all the different (and similarly flawed) machines – Dominion Voting (formerly Diebold), Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and Hart InterCivic – were invited, but didn’t come. Certainly, if they were as concerned with democracy as they are about profits, they should have, as who would not want so much free testing to help improve a product? Not them, apparently.

Finally, a plethora of journalists, concerned politicians (these do exist) and other security experts populate the film in support of Hursti’s mostly ignored warnings, including: The New Yorker’s Sue Halpern; Senators Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, Mark Warner (D) of Virginia and James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma (the only currently serving Republican in the film); former US Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute, Recorded Future’s Andrei Barysevich, UC Berkeley’s Philip Stark and the University of Michigan’s Alex Halderman. There are others, as well, all coming together to shout in unison that the only true way to ensure honest elections is to vote with paper. Without this kind of verifiable trail, nothing is certain.

Voting ballots. Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Don’t just be afraid, be terrified. Listen to these experts’ collective angst and demand action. It may already be too late. The titular term “kill chain” is an old one, after all, referring to the following five-part military strategy (as outlined in the movie): 1. Gather intelligence; 2. Analyze; 3. Weaponize; 4. Paralyze; 5. Attack. I’d say we’re pretty paralyzed just now. Get ready.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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