Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talked with director Sarah Teale of HBO’s Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections about the film’s four-year journey to the small screen, reteaming with Hacking Democracy‘s Harri Hursti, and what everyone needs to know before Election Day 2020.
If you’re looking for a feel-good film about making your voice heard in elections, this is not one of them. But it’s probably the most important film you can watch before the next time you cast a ballot.
HBO’s Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections takes a scathing look at American elections and uncovers how vulnerable our voting systems really are. And the most disturbing thing is that computer programmer Harri Hursti, whom the HBO documentary is centered around, has been telling Americans about how exposed our voting system is since 2006, when he was featured in HBO’s Hacking Democracy—executive produced by Sarah Teale.
This time around, Teale is in the director’s chair for Kill Chain, next to Hacking Democracy directors Simon Ardizzone and Russell Michaels. I had a chance to chat with Teale about the making of this ticking time-bomb of a doc, what it was like filming Hursti all over the world, and why 14 years later, people are still reluctant to grasp that our next election has already been hacked.
Awards Daily: I was really impressed with the scope of this documentary. How long did it take to work on and put together?
Sarah Teale: We first started pitching it really before the election in 2016, because we knew there were going to be major problems. We had kept in touch with Harri, who we had done a film with in 2006, called Hacking Democracy, and Hacking Democracy was on HBO. And Harri, at the end of that film, shows how you can flip the vote. We thought in 2006 that things would change, but by 2016, we realized that they really hadn’t. We started pitching in 2016. We did the first bit of filming in 2017. When Harri goes to get that voting machine from that warehouse that had 1,200 of them, that was very early. That actually happened in early 2017. We found these things on eBay, and I still have a whole load of them in my basement. (Laughs) Which is completely crazy, because you’re not supposed to be able to get them.
And we actually filmed the first ever DefCon in early 2017, and HBO came in in 2018. So we really started filming full-time then. It’s taken us a while, but it took a while. It’s very complicated stuff and to understand what’s really going on and how these machines really work, isn’t easy. Nobody was paying Harri to do this research, and Alex Halderman had to fit in his research in between his teaching at the University of Michigan and other jobs. So nobody was really looking because nobody was being paid to look. Nobody was interested. It took a while, and there’s still a lot of research to come. But we had to stop at a certain point.
AD: Three directors worked on this film, including yourself. I know you are used to working with at least one other director, but what was it like having three visions and what did that add to the project?
ST: Simon Ardizzone, Russ Michaels, and I—Simon and Russ actually directed Hacking Democracy and I was the producer on that—so we ‘d worked together before, and we have very different skills. Russ is really more on the research side; he has the incredible ability to read really boring voting machine manuals and find the one sentence that reveals something. Russ is incredibly detail-oriented, that’s why we knew we could trust the things he came up with. Simon does a little bit of that, too, but Simon also directed some of the shoots in Finland, since it’s closer to England. He did the ones in Alaska and California, and I did the ones in New York and Washington. Simon is also an editor, so it helped having him edit down all the places we went. He would put them on this fantastic platform called Frame.io, so we could all look at them and make sure they were accurate. The final piece of editing was in New York, and that was from Phillip Schopper, our wonderful editor. I don’t know, we managed. We managed. I like collaborations actually.
AD: I found Harri Hursti to be completely fascinating and such a genius. I know you worked with him when you were executive producer of Hacking Democracy. Is it frustrating to be having this same conversation about insecure voting systems, 14 years later? Why do you think people are still reluctant to listen?
ST: I just think people want to walk into a precinct, do their vote, and leave, and they just don’t want to think about it. People just don’t want to think about how it works. They just want to think their vote is safe. Politicians in particular don’t want to be near this because they got elected on these things, and it calls into question their election, and they don’t want to raise issues, so nobody does. In the meantime, the voting machine companies are getting away with really criminal behavior. They haven’t upgraded their machines, they don’t have any cyber security on their staff.
People didn’t take seriously the fact that Russia hacked the election, and who knew in 2006? We thought the people who would potentially hack would be locals. We never thought it would be Russia or Iran or whomever. Actually when we started out filming, Harri refused to believe it was Russia until he saw it with his own eyes. We have to pay attention now more than ever. People still don’t really want to take this seriously. There are some politicians now, the four that are in our film in particular, who are trying hard to get bills through, but every time they come up with a bipartisan bill, it gets killed by the White House. Some people see it as a state’s rights, and in the states, they see it as a county rights issue, so there’s nobody in charge.
AD: While working on Kill Chain and even Hacking Democracy, do you ever worry that you’re just giving more people a license to hack elections?
ST: We always worry about that, but I think until we fix these things, it’s important that people understand in order that things get fixed. We need to put the information out there. It’s happening anyway. We need to shine a light on it. It’s important that people vote and hopefully the message at the end of the film is that we all should be voting on paper and doing risk-limiting audits. But we do need to vote, yes.
AD: Given everything you know, so you would still encourage people to vote in the next election? Is there anything they can do to make their vote more secure? Can we ask for a paper ballot?
ST: Yes, you can ask for a paper ballot. I think all we can do is be in touch with our local election officials and make sure they watch this film. Ask them to hand out paper ballots and make sure a limited number or percentage of them are counted by hand in a random way. Because then you can back it up by doing a risk-limiting audit. They don’t take long. We should all be in touch with our election officials. Goodness knows what we’re going to do in the primaries or even November with the coronavirus.
AD: Do you expect there to be more hacking than usual in the next election? Do you anticipate another documentary in a few years?
ST: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t know whether we’ll be the ones doing it. Nothing is going to be done in time for November. As said at the end of the film, any good hacker when you get in, no one looks to see if they’re there. They’re actually very hard to find if they’re there, because the systems were not set up that way. They’re there. They’re just waiting. And the same thing will happen. There will be glitches in certain areas, maybe a huge glitch in LA County, a complete mess and a disaster, so it will be like last time. [They’ll say] “Very bad things happened in Georgia”, but it’s a “glitch.”
AD: The film talks about how what makes the United States unique is that we don’t have a national voting system. It’s different in each state—that’s both its flaw and also its strength. What do you think the film advocates as the best way to move forward with more secure voting practices? Do you think it is just having some sort of paper ballot? But then I wonder about sustainability issues, when it comes to having that paper.
ST: The bill that Amy Klobuchar and James Lankford, who’s a Republican, came up with is the Secure Elections Act, and it would go a long, long way to helping. In fact, when they came up with it, I was a little worried that if it would pass, we wouldn’t have a film. Harri was like, don’t be silly, they’re not gonna pass it. But if it had come up for a vote, I think they would have passed it. If you look up the Secure Elections Act, that lays out pretty clearly the best way forward, which is hand-marked paper ballots, risk-limiting audits, and an insistence that there are cyber-security people within the voting machine companies. And that people are allowed to look at the code. These are publicly-funded companies who have privacy issues because they are a private companies, and yet they are paid for out of public money, our money. We’re not allowed to look at their code or machines and that’s just wrong.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.