A server that held data central to Georgia’s elections was wiped this summer, destroying the potential for a forensic investigation to determine whether or not the server was compromised by hackers, the AP reports.
The data destruction was revealed in an email last week from an associate state attorney general to a group that is suing Georgia in an attempt to force additional security measures into the election system. The lawsuit was filed on July 3rd and data was reportedly destroyed on July 7th. In August, backups of the wiped server were also destroyed.
“The lawsuit was filed, and right after the lawsuit was filed, they wiped their server. After it was moved to federal court, they did it again,” Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, an organization that advocates for election security and has worked with the group of Georgia advocates involved in the lawsuit, told Gizmodo.
Although the deleted data wasn’t under any preservation order from the court, Schneider, a former election official in Pennsylvania, said that the server still should not have been wiped. “As a former state government employee, you can’t do that,” she explained. “You have to preserve governmental records if you are an arm of the state government.”
One of the goals of the lawsuit is to get Georgia to scrap its touchscreen voting machines, which don’t create a paper record of votes that can be audited. Other states, including Virginia, have moved to decertify vulnerable touchscreen voting machines.
The Georgia plaintiffs hoped the server would provide evidence of security problems in the state’s election system, according to the AP, but their chances of getting a forensic review are shot. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation might be sitting on a copy—the agency imaged the server in March when it was investigating a possible data breach. The FBI declined to tell the AP whether it still has its copy.
“What it points out is that when you have these machines that don’t have a paper record of voter intent, when something does happen, if you do detect it, you have no way of recovering form it,” Schneider said.
Although it’s hard to know for sure since the server has been wiped, it’s quite possible that hackers meddled with it during the election cycle. Logan Lamb, a security researcher, found millions of voter records and login information for poll workers publicly available online last year. He warned Georgia election officials about the data exposure, but it was left unfixed for months.
It’s not exactly clear why Georgia officials decided to wipe the server. A spokesperson for Georgia’s secretary of state said that her office wasn’t involved in the decision, and Kennesaw State University, which maintains the server, declined to comment to the AP.
But choosing to do so in the midst of a lawsuit doesn’t look great. Marilyn Marks, the executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the AP, “I don’t think you could find a voting systems expert who would think the deletion of the server data was anything less than insidious and highly suspicious.”