UTRECHT, Netherlands: In an age of superfast computers and interconnected everything, the only sure way to protect the integrity of election results is to return to paper and pen.
That is the view of Sijmen Ruwhof, an ethical or “white hat” hacker, who last month revealed that the Dutch election’s commission computer software was riddled with vulnerabilities.
In a shock announcement just weeks before the March 15 elections—seen as a bellwether of the rise of far-right and populist parties across Europe—Dutch officials announced they were abandoning the computer system in use since 2009 to return to counting ballots by hand.
It was Ruwhof who discovered the problem. At the request of Dutch broadcaster RTL he spent just one evening examining the OSV software, developed for the Dutch government by a German company, via an online YouTube explanatory video, finding 25 weak points.
“It seemed to be completely insecure. I was quite shocked that we run our democracy, our election process based on very vulnerable software,” he told AFP.
Within days of the RTL report, the interior ministry announced ballots cast by the 12.9 million eligible voters would now be hand counted.
Then the head of the Dutch secret services (AIVD) made another stunning revelation—in the past six months there had been hundreds of attempted cyber attacks on Dutch companies and government agencies most were believed to have been carried out by Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers.
“It’s a real challenge to stay ahead of the game,” AIVD head Rob Bertholee said.
But these revelations, like the stunning news that Russian hackers appear to have meddled in the US presidential elections, were of little surprise to Ruwhof.
As a 12-year-old he became fascinated by computers. Self-taught, he managed to hack into the school computers and informed grateful teachers the system was insecure.
That was 19 years and an information technology degree ago. Now 31, Ruwhof makes his living working for banks, government departments, and major companies hacking at their request into their systems to expose their weaknesses.
“It’s very easy,” he insisted, without any smugness. But he remains frustrated that for many companies and organizations security is almost an afterthought.
“Software systems are so complex nowadays that it’s hard for a single IT person to comprehend the whole system. So nobody has the total picture of the system. As a hacker you just go by and you scan for weak spots and you always find something.”
The world has been lucky so far, because few terror groups like the so-called Islamic State have the capacity yet to unleash “cyber terrorism.”