Where were you when you learned e-voting was unreliable?
'Baffle-gab and buzz words'
RSA Applications security expert Hugh Thompson remembers his introduction to e-voting systems like it was yesterday. So do computer scientists David Wagner and Doug Jones. What made the experience stand out for all three was the machines' surprising lack of security.
For Thompson, the epiphany came after a conference a few years ago when someone asked him to inspect a widely used machine to see if it could be hacked.
"Things can't be as bad as I've heard rumors about them being," Thompson recalled thinking before he delved in.
In fact, he was wrong. He found two holes that were so gaping they could have allowed someone to secretly throw an election.
"It was worse than I could ever have imagined," he said. "It was really egregious."
Thompson's recollection came during a panel at the RSA security conference where participants offered a bleak assessment about the state of e-voting. The machines are fraught with bugs that allow for vote tampering, all four of the panelists said.
Wagner, a professor at UC Berkeley's computer science department, related a similar wake-up experience that came shortly after he completed a top-to-bottom audit for California that found critical flaws in product supplied by all three vendors studied.
"I wasn't sure what to expect going in to the review," Wagner said. "I'm afraid the news was worse that anything I had expected. We had to go to the state and tell the state that all three of the systems we looked at had serious vulnerabilities."
Not to be outdone, Jones, a professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, said his first exposure to e-voting insecurity came after he volunteered to sit on a board that would advise Iowa officials on voting machines. As he inspected a ballot scanner, he quickly found that about 10 per cent of the marks were misread each time a stack of ballots was run.
"When you get 90 per cent match, 10 per cent error from reading the same deck of ballots one time to the next time, you begin to wonder if this is a sensible tabulator machine," he said.
Another eye-opener came when he was speaking to the vice president of Global Election Systems, which was acquired by Diebold in 2001. After the VP mentioned one of his company's machines relied on symmetric encryption, Jones asked how keys were managed to prevent unauthorised parties from getting access to them.
Jones said he got a blank stare, and meaningless assurances that the key was "hard-coded into the source code". Five years later the vulnerability was still there when it was documented by Johns Hopkins professor Avi Rubin.
"What I learned and what still seems to remain the case is if you can't fix it, feature it," Jones said of the experience. "You can always use technical baffle-gab to make your customers think things are very very very secure by simply speaking in buzz words they don't understand."
The amount of criticism lobbed onto to e-voting machine makers for sub-par security prompted Wagner to liken them to Microsoft before it made security a major push. "Voting system vendors are where Microsoft was 10 years ago," he said.
By now, reports of critical flaws in e-voting machines are nothing new. Thompson, who was featured in the HBO documentary Hacking Democracy walked the audience through two of the vulnerabilities that he laid out in the piece, which first aired in November 2006.
In the registrar of voter offices in Leon County, Florida, he showed viewers how he could access the central tabulator of a Diebold GEMS machine, which the vendor had claimed was inaccessible without a password. By accessing a Microsoft Access file used to store and calculate the number of votes for each candidate, he changed the results for a student election at a local high school.
Election officials' response, he said, was to uninstall Access from all the machines. When he said the same hack could be carried out using the notepad.exe editor, they wanted to remove that program as well.
More recently, reports commissioned by elections officials from California and Ohio have found serious vulnerabilities in products made by virtually every e-voting manufacturer. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state's top elections official, responded by decertifying machines made by the industry's four biggest vendors.
But in most states, e-voting is as widely used as ever. And that's not likely to change anytime soon, given that states have spent billions of dollars buying the gear, the panelists said. With so many machines in use that contain known vulnerabilities, the most important safeguard states can take is to audit election results.
That means states must use systems that return a receipt that voters can use to verify that their votes were recorded as cast. It also requires that state officials routinely audit a statistically significant sample of votes against the receipts to verify the validity of an election.
At the moment, Wagner said, only about one-third of the states do this.
Yes, we warned you the assessment was bleak. And we meant it. ®