Slammer turns Florida election result into worm food

Breached server takes down evoting machines

New concerns about the accuracy of electronic voting in Sarasota County, Florida are being raised after a published report documented how the county's main database system came under attack from a virulent worm. The county server was breached on the first day of early voting in the 2006 election, which included a now-disputed race for a seat in the US House of Representatives.

The attack code was a variant of the infamous Slammer worm that penetrated the county's server, which unbelievably, was missing five years worth of security patches, according to an article painstakingly reported by investigative journalist Brad Friedman. The breach crippled the county's entire network, including the electronic voting system, where net connectivity was disrupted for two hours. Those trying to vote during the outage were turned away.

The worm breached the database server's firewall and overwrote the system's administrative passwords. The server then "sent traffic to other database servers on the Internet, and the traffic generated by the infected server rendered the firewall unavailable," according to a two-page incident report unearthed by Friedman. A network security specialist who helped draft the report said he believed the harm to the county's election systems was limited to the two-hour disruption, because the two networks were not connected. (The specialist conceded that the timing of the attack, on the first day of early voting, "would make somebody raise an eyebrow" in suspecting the election system was being targeted.)

The revelations are the latest to call into question the accuracy of Sarasota County's election system, which relies in large part on evoting machines supplied by a company called Election Systems & Software (ES&S). An article last week on Wired News said that incident reports filed by poll workers following the November election reported that many voters suffered from symptoms of a previously known software flaw with the company's iVotronic voting machine. (Similar problems also appeared during a primary election two months earlier, Wired said.)

The concern over the accuracy of evoting in Sarasota County might seem like the hand wringing of luddites were it not for improbable results in the race for Florida's 13th Congressional district. Republican Vern Buchanan edged out Democrat Christine Jennings by just 369 votes. More than 18,000 ballots recorded no vote in the race, an "undervote" rate that was about nine times higher than other races. Jennings is contesting the results in court.

Election officials have claimed that the known bug played no role in election results and say there's no evidence the worm breach compromised electronic voting. Maybe so, but the lack of transparency is breathtaking.

The officials withheld a letter they received from ES&S warning of a bug in its touch-screen machines from document demands issued by attorneys working the case. And Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent didn't utter a peep about the worm intrusion in a state-mandated "Conduct of Election" report, signed on November 18.

Free and open elections, without which democracy isn't possible, demand a fearless pursuit of the truth, something that appears to be in short supply in Sarasota. ®

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