Feds’ Cyber-Watchdog ALBERT Gives More Reason to Distrust Federal Election Officials

By Tom Gilson Published on January 17, 2023

U.S. election officials have deployed a black-box computer system nationwide to protect election computers from foreign hacking. Nearly every voting precinct now has an ALBERT monitor installed on-site, watching network traffic and ensuring nothing gets altered, attacked, or corrupted. The system is managed by the Center for Internet Security, a 501(c)3 organization based in rural New York.

What’s inside this black box? We don’t know. It’s used in industry, not just for elections. Federal election guardians undoubtedly brought considerable expertise into their decision to purchase it. It proves that expertise in one field is no protection against being utterly tone-deaf in another. This system may be designed to protect against attack, but in this context it’s also designed to undermine trust. 

Trust is in short supply these days. Close to half of Americans doubt we can trust the results from 2020. And now the government is telling everyone to install a black box device in their election systems, doing who-knows-what under the control of who-knows-who. ALBERT is most likely an excellent, trustworthy system on its own. Given our climate of distrust, however, “most likely” doesn’t seem good enough. There is no way the public can know for sure. All we have is, “It comes from the government, so you can trust it.”

The Defense Problem

The use of ALBERT seems to have been birthed in reaction to hyped reports that Russia wormed its way into the 2016 election. The risk is real, and we need defenses against it. If China or Russia throws their best assets at our elections, we need our best assets defending them.

So, it’s properly a national problem, not a local one. Cybersecurity expert Matt Blaze told NPR last August, “We don’t ask the county sheriff to be responsible for repelling military invasions, but that is really the equivalent of what [local election districts precincts] are up against on the internet.”

That’s why ALBERT is everywhere now. It’s for national cyber-defense. It’s crucial to our security. And for all we know, ALBERT is doing the job. For all we know, no one has tinkered with it to make it do anything else. It’s not tampering with elections in particular.

Those are key words, though: “For all we know.” What do we know for sure? Nothing.

I find it comforting to know we have a system to protect from foreign tampering. What bothers me is the reason some experts give for trusting it.

Should We Trust It?

The NPR piece linked above tells of a conservative rural northwest county where local officials uninstalled ALBERT, because they don’t want a black box system potentially doing untraceable things to their computers. A small number of other counties have followed suit.

Matt Masterson, the DHS official in charge of cybersecurity in 2020, told NPR (in the same article linked above) that decisions like these based on “lies and untruths.” He added, “It is entirely healthy and appropriate for citizens and elected officials to ask questions about the nature of the technology they use. … But those conversations have to be based in fact.”  But which facts? How do we know they are facts? Who do we trust for that?

The government says we should trust it. What else could we want?

Geoff Hale, another DHS official, assures us that ALBERT is a passive monitor and nothing more. It’s like a camera system watching cars for some bad guy’s license plate, he said. It sends an alert, nothing more.

That’s what he says, anyway. The government says we should trust it. What else could we want?

“We’re Your Government. Trust Us!”

History is on our side, after all. Every government that starts abusing its power sends its citizens advance warning, “You can stop trusting us now. We used to tell the truth, but we’re not guaranteeing that anymore.” Our government hasn’t made that announcement yet, so we’re in great shape, right?  Wrong.

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Every mainstream news article on the 2020 election says everything was just fine. That’s a weak answer at best,  for reasons I need not repeat. Around 40% of Americans think still it was stolen. The other 60% are relying on information from the government and the media that ride in its hip pocket, and the fact that Trump’s team, working without the aid of either law enforcement or the media, was unable decisively to prove fraud.

Americans have never revolted against our elected leaders. I doubt we ever will, as long as we have good reason to believe we’ve voted them in through open, honest, constitutionally sound elections. Take that confidence away, and you’ve got a recipe for turmoil that could go far beyond what we’ve seen here in the past few years.

The “ALBERT System” Monitoring Election Security

And now our ever-helpful feds have positioned secret black boxes to reach into every computerized election system in the government. “Trust us,” they say. “Granted, you have no way of really knowing what we’re up to here. What’s your problem, though? When has your government ever had anything but your best interests at heart?”

Not everyone buys it. (Imagine that!) Gateway Pundit raises good questions, as does Nancy Churchill, through whom I first learned about it. Some locales had ransomware attacks after installing ALBERT. The feds have sometimes been slow to notify local officials of attacks.

Whatever security problems ALBERT may solve, any system that depends on trusting the government just because they say so is a fail from the start.

Beyond that, the public has no way to monitor the monitors, that is, the people who run ALBERT. If they can watch an election computer’s traffic, can they change it? I don’t know. You don’t know, either.

What I do know is that whatever security problems ALBERT may solve, as an installed system it depends on “Trust us, we’re your government.” ALBERT itself might be just great, but its use in a system depends on trusting the government just because the government says so is bound to fail.

Is This Really That Much Like Military Defense?

Yet none of the experts quoted by NPR seems to have a clue to that part of the problem Matt Blaze compared ALBERT to the military. National-level attacks require national-level resources to defend against it, he says. It’s a fine analogy for the high-level combat involved. For questions of trust, though, it borders on idiotic.

Consider two questions, both of which go straight to the heart of trust. From your own knowledge, using readily available public information, do you have reason to believe …

  1. That the American military isn’t dropping bombs on American cities?
  2. That ALBERT is doing nothing to interfere with American elections?

You can see with your own eyes that our military isn’t attacking us. You know that no one is secretly using ALBERT to attack us because … what? Because our country is led by only good, honest people who would never dream of telling a lie? Hah!

Is There a Better Answer?

ALBERT is supposed to help ensure trust in elections. That’s great. Where the feds say, “You can trust it, it comes from your government,” that’s not so great.

Is anyone using ALBERT to tamper with elections? From what I’ve seen, probably not. “Probably not” isn’t good enough, in my opinion. What really concerns is this, though. America needs to restore confidence in our elections.  Election security officials are defending of ALBERT based on federal assurances that we can trust it; that we we can trust the feds when they say everything’s just fine in our elections.

In ALBERT’s case it may be true, but federal assurances aren’t good enough anymore. These are the leaders responsible for ensuring election security, and from what we see here, they don’t understand the problem, they’re certainly not helping, and I don’t know why we should trust election security to anyone so tone-deaf.

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality

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