Systems & Cryptography Research in Defense of Democracy

April 13, 2021 12:00 p.m | LINK

Mike Specter
Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT

SCP Seminal Talk
Presented by the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy


In the recent U.S. primary and presidential elections, the COVID-19 pandemic forced states to prepare for the eventuality that voters would not be able to cast their ballots safely in person. As a result, many elections administrators planned to deploy commercial internet voting systems to help facilitate remote participation in the elections. While internet voting has motivated decades of research in cryptography and systems security, the design and security guarantees of the commercially-available internet voting systems were largely unknown and intentionally obfuscated. 

In this talk, I will present my research which provided the first comprehensive security evaluation of the dominant internet voting systems used in U.S. federal elections. My analysis revealed that all such systems suffer from flaws that could allow attackers to expose a voter’s private ballot, change votes, or otherwise influence an election’s outcome. As a direct result of this work, many states altered or canceled plans to use these internet voting systems in the 2020 primary and general elections. 

Central to this research is an understanding of how the economic, regulatory, and technical attributes of actors can result in a misalignment of incentives, ultimately leading to security vulnerabilities in high-stakes systems. Expanding on this theme, I will discuss my work on two similar problem domains — practical deniable messaging protocols and encryption and surveillance — that further demonstrate how an interdisciplinary approach is crucial for solving important societally-relevant problems in cryptography and systems security.


Michael A. Specter is a Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, advised by Gerald Jay Sussman and Danny Weitzner. His research focuses on systems security and applied cryptography, with an emphasis on problems that have an impact on public policy and society. His interdisciplinary work earned him an Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a JD Falk Award from the M3AAWG, and a Google ASPIRE PhD fellowship. His research has been extensively covered in the popular press, including by The New York Times, The New Yorker, CNN, Vice, Bloomberg, Fortune, and The Economist. 

Specter holds Master’s degrees in EECS and Technology Policy from MIT. He has held research internships with both Apple and Google, and, prior to embarking on his Ph.D., he spent five years as a research scientist in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory where he focused on operating systems security, vulnerability discovery, and reverse engineering in the interest of national security.