Feeds

Hackers hijack internet voting system in Washington DC

All your votes are belong to us

Build a business case: developing custom apps

An internet voting system designed to allow District of Columbia residents to cast absentee ballots has been put on hold after computer scientists exploited vulnerabilities that would have allowed them to rig elections and view secret data.

The system, which was paid for in part by a $300,000 federal grant, was hijacked just 36 hours after Washington DC elections officials began testing it ahead of live elections scheduled for next month. Scientists from the University of Michigan pulled off the hack to demonstrate the inherent insecurity of net-based voting.

“None of this will come as a surprise to internet security experts, who are familiar with the many kinds of attacks that major websites suffer from on a daily basis,” one of the scientists, J. Alex Halderman, wrote on Tuesday on the Freedom to Tinker blog. “It may someday be possible to build a secure method for submitting ballots over the internet, but in the meantime, such systems should be presumed to be vulnerable based on the limitations of today's security technology.”

The pilot system, which was built on open-source software, was deployed a week ago Tuesday, and just 36 hours later, the team was able to take full control of it. Even though their attack caused computers that were used to cast votes to play their alma mater's fight song, it took elections officials until Friday to suspend the site.

It has since been reinstated, but residents can use it only to download ballots that they can print and return by postal mail. Internet voting has been suspended.

The voting application was written on the Ruby on Rails framework and ran on top of the Apache web server and the MySQL database. The scientists were able to hijack the system after they discovered that they could upload ballots with almost any string they wanted. By inserting Unix commands into the file names, they were able to take “almost total control of the server software, including the ability to change votes and reveal voters' secret ballots,” Halderman said.

A file named “ballot.$(sleep 10)pdf,” for instance, caused the server to pause for 10 seconds. They used similar techniques to install a backdoor on the system that allowed them almost unfettered system access.

DC officials deployed the system even after Common Cause and a group of computer scientists and election-law experts warned city officials that the trial posed an unacceptable security risk that "imperils the overall accuracy of every election on the ballot,” The Washington Post reported. Among other shockers in Halderman's post is the revelation that highly secret data, including the database username and password, were stored on the server. ®

Bootnote

No, we never said the gaping holes that were exploited stemmed from the open-source software. FOSS fanbois can now stand down.

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
Rupert Murdoch says Google is worse than the NSA
Mr Burns vs. The Chocolate Factory, round three!
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Germany 'accidentally' snooped on John Kerry and Hillary Clinton
Dragnet surveillance picks up EVERYTHING, USA, m'kay?
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
Who needs hackers? 'Password1' opens a third of all biz doors
GPU-powered pen test yields more bad news about defences and passwords
Think crypto hides you from spooks on Facebook? THINK AGAIN
Traffic fingerprints reveal all, say boffins
Microsoft cries UNINSTALL in the wake of Blue Screens of Death™
Cache crash causes contained choloric calamity
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Solving today's distributed Big Data backup challenges
Enable IT efficiency and allow a firm to access and reuse corporate information for competitive advantage, ultimately changing business outcomes.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.