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Elections Security Expert Brings New Perspective to 2024

Whether it’s protecting users from email scams or studying election technology, cybersecurity researchers are confronting the reality that every new discovery could make or break public trust and cause misinformation to spread.  

Few understand this burden better than Michael A. Specter, a new assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy (SCP). Having spent several years addressing the complex social, economic, and legal challenges related to election security, Specter brings a unique perspective to the field.  

“By developing and breaking systems with an understanding of the surrounding legal and policy issues, we are able to help solve problems that are critical to a functioning democracy,” said Specter. 

This desire to use cybersecurity to protect democracy has driven Specter since he was a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During his time there he led several security analyses of internet and blockchain voting applications used in U.S. federal elections. His team identified several flaws in the systems they reviewed — resulting in voting policy changes in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Oregon, Utah, and West Virginia. 

Following this success, Specter coauthored an amicus brief filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The brief was part of the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case Van Buren v United States, an effort to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Specter argued the interpretation made by a lower court would lead to legal trouble for researchers investigating critical computer vulnerabilities. A majority of justices agreed with the arguments made by the petitioners and reversed the lower court’s ruling.  

After seeing his cryptography work directly impact fields outside of computing, the MIT graduate began searching for roles in academia, leading him to join SCP. This spring, Specter will lead students through his new course CS8803: Security, Privacy, and Democracy. Like his research, the course studies the technical and social systems crucial to democratic government. 

“I joined Georgia Tech because they created an entire department based on the premise that approaching security from multiple disciplines was the right direction, resulting in a school that is intellectually diverse and unique,” he said. “My new colleagues are some of the best in the world and are working on incredibly important aspects of security and privacy.” 

As a new year begins, it allows researchers like Specter to measure and study infrastructure in the 2024 election cycle. However, it’s not something he can do alone. Specter is looking for Ph.D. students studying cryptography, law, economics, systems security, or similar fields to join him in studying voting systems, privacy, misinformation, censorship, and free and open communications. 

About the main image: The photo of an American flag behind a prison fence is a stock image that was found in the public domain.

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