With two weeks remaining before Iowa kicks off the 2012 campaign with its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, the state Republican Party is taking steps to secure its electronic vote collection system after receiving a mysterious threat to its computers.
A video claiming to be from a collective of computer hackers has jolted party officials with a worst-case scenario: an Iowa caucus marred by hackers who successfully corrupt the database used to gather vote totals and crash the website used to inform the public about results that can shape the campaign for the White House.
While confident in the safeguards protecting the vote count itself, and aware the video may be a hoax, members of the state Republican Party's central committee told The Associated Press they are taking the threat seriously and have authorized additional security measures to ensure hackers are unable to delay the release of results.
The party fears such a delay could disrupt the traditional influence of the Iowa caucuses. Candidates who do well tend to gain momentum in the presidential race, while those finishing at the back of the pack may drop out.
"With the eyes of the media on the state, the last thing we want to do is have a situation where there is trouble with the reporting system. We don't want that to be the story," said Wes Enos, a member of the central committee and the political director for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign in Iowa.
The two-minute video features a computer-generated voice denouncing what it calls a corrupt political system that favors corporations and calls on supporters to "peacefully shut down the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses." The video claims to be from Anonymous, a loosely organized group of hackers that has claimed credit for attacks on targets ranging from the Peruvian government to Paypal.
A former activist for Occupy Des Moines, Clarke Davidson, has acknowledged posting the video on YouTube. He said he did so after masked men left it outside his tent near the state Capitol on Nov. 3.
Investigators aren't sure whether the video is authentic, and state authorities have not taken any actions since the call to "peacefully shut down" the caucuses does not amount to a crime, said Jim Saunders, director of the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center at the state's Department of Public Safety.
Unlike most presidential primaries, which are conducted by state governments, Iowa's caucuses are run by the political parties. On Jan. 3, voters will gather in 1,784 precincts in Iowa's 99 counties to declare their preference for a candidate. Those results are then reported to the state party, where they are tabulated electronically and reported to the public on a website.
Ryan Gough, the state GOP official in charge of coordinating the caucuses, said the party was taking steps to protect its election data, but declined to comment on specifics so as not to give away "the game plan" to hackers."
The GOP is also encouraging the party activists who run the precinct votes to use paper ballots instead of a show of hands, which has been the practice in some areas. The ballots would provide a backup in the event of any later confusion about the results.
Drew Ivers, chairman of Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign in Iowa and a member of the state GOP central committee, said party officials and consultants will also monitor for any hacking threat using software and other methods, but added, "How do you stop a hacker? That's the question."
"If a hacker gets in and messes it all up, we can reconstruct (the results)," he said. "It would take a little while. It might take a day or two, but we can do it."
Among the early voting states, the hacking concerns have most spooked officials in Iowa. In New Hampshire, whose primary is one week after the Iowa caucuses, officials rely on a mostly manual process that uses paper and is less vulnerable to an attack on computer systems, said Assistant Secretary of State Anthony Stevens. In South Carolina, which follows 11 days later, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said he was not aware of any concerns.
But Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who has consulted for both political parties, said the Iowa Republican Party is right to be concerned about the security of their computer systems. The Internet, he said, is "becoming more and more like the Wild West."
"It's very clear the data consolidation and data gathering from the caucuses, which determines the headlines the next morning, who might withdraw or resign from the process, all of that is fragile," Jones said. "If I were one of these 'hacktivists' who had no scruples, I would be really strongly tempted to see if I could get into the computer and see if I could make 'SpongeBob SquarePants' win."