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The Iowa caucus debacle is great for America’s disinformation-peddling adversaries

February 5, 2020, 1:48 PM UTC

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The Democratic Party of Iowa had years to prepare for its presidential caucus. Instead, the party bungled the 2020 election season’s kickoff event and created a situation for chaos and conspiracy theories to run rampant, undermining pretty much everyone’s trust in the process.

What went wrong? Faulty software design, poor engineering, and a heap of hubris apparently caused the fracas. Iowa’s Democratic Party hired a contractor that rushed out a malfunctioning app intended to help tally votes. Only a quarter of the state’s 1,700 precinct chairs were able to download and install the monstrosity, the New York Times reported.

For those that did manage, somehow, to get the pitiful exercise in techno-solutionism up and running, the tool failed to report accurate results. Party officials have officially blamed a “coding error“; its chairs fell back on manual tallying, phone calls, photos sent via text message, and hand-delivered papers.

The defective app’s vendor, Shadow, whose name had initially been kept quiet in a doomed attempt at security through obscurity, tried to quell people’s worries over the tallying delays:

And Gerard Niemira, CEO of Shadow, recently gave his first post-catastrophe interview. “I’m really disappointed that some of our technology created an issue that made the caucus difficult,” he told Bloomberg. “We feel really terrible about that.”

(Because the cosmos has a sense of humor, the company’s name, of course, signifies the exact opposite of transparency.)

Gregory Miller, cofounder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, has the best summary of the whole debacle. He had earlier advised Iowa’s Democrats against using the app, and vented his frustration to Motherboard:

“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 … 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.”

In fact, Iowa’s Democrats opened a can of whupass on all of America. The party tried to be innovative, to adopt newfangled tech and take the “minimum viable product” mentality of Silicon Valley to the ballot box, and now everyone is paying the price.

Make no mistake: This election is and will be, just like 2016, under attack by foreign governments, bots, and other peddlers of disinformation. Kicking off the election cycle with such a disaster plays right into the hands of America’s adversaries who stand to benefit from the turmoil.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com

THREATS

Doing it for the 'gram. People are using group accounts on Instagram to overload the photo app with random data and thereby overwhelm its personalization and ad-targeting abilities. Given that Facebook can tell from where and what device you're logging in, it's hard to imagine this trick will work for long, but it seems to confuse the algorithms for now. By the way, Instagram is said to have brought in a quarter of Facebook's sales last year: roughly $20 billion, sources told Bloomberg.

Fake it till you make it. An Alphabet subsidiary called Jigsaw developed an app to help journalists tell doctored photos from real ones.  More than a dozen news agencies are testing the A.I.-based tool, called Assembler. Twitter, meanwhile, has broadened its "deepfake" policy. The site will disallow people from deceptively sharing "synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm."

Locked in the vault. Joshua Shulte, an ex-CIA engineer who is alleged to have leaked a cache of sensitive documents relating to the agency's hacking capabilities to WikiLeaks, is now standing trial. His legal team is trying to argue that he is a whistleblower, which seems like a problematic strategy, given that there is no history of him having expressed moral concerns about the agency's work.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Lawyers for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are asking a California judge to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by the brother of Bezos's girlfriend Lauren Sanchez. The brother, Michael Sanchez, filed suit last week accusing Bezos of spreading false rumors about him having leaked nude photographs of Bezos to a tabloid. Bezos denies spreading such rumors. In other news, Bezos just sold $1.8 billion worth of Amazon stock.

Subs with frickin' laser beams attached.

ACCESS GRANTED

Chinese spies love intellectual property theft. In a recent sting operation, a Chinese national allegedly got caught trying to obtain radiation-hardened computer chips on behalf of a Chinese buyer. (Laws restrict sales of such national security-sensitive technology from reaching countries such as China and Russia.) As Quartz relates, general sloppiness caused the suspect's cover story to blow up.

Nicholas Eftimiades, a veteran intelligence officer who held positions with the CIA, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and the Defense Intelligence Agency during his 34-year career, said the technology in radiation-hardened microchips is “very, very closely guarded.” He said [Jian Fun] Tso’s explanation of how his clients would use them was nothing short of “ridiculous.” ...

“The Chinese have been eating our lunch since the eighties,” former CIA officer Robert Baer told Quartz. “Nearly every single scientific and technological breakthrough they’ve made is thanks to what they’ve ripped off from us. And it’s only getting worse. Chinese theft of our technology is up there with our worst national security threats.”

FORTUNE RECON

Twitter will label, remove ‘deepfake’ videos under new policy by Kurt Wagner

Nevada Democrats dump app that caused Iowa’s caucus meltdown by Kevin Collier

Artificial Intelligence comes to Slurpees and Big Macs by Jonathan Vanian

The U.S. may soon have the world’s oldest nuclear power plants by Ari Natter

Is there still appetite for direct-to-consumer businesses? By Polina Marinova

ONE MORE THING

What is the longest possible URL? It's 255 characters, apparently. The blog BoingBoing highlights the maximized web address:

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If you're bold enough to visit the site, I hope you will enjoy the strangely entrancing rainbow theme as much as I did.