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Voteware source code review 'could lead to hacking'

Special minister of state raises bigger question: How secure is the Australian Electoral Commission?

Parliament House Canberra by Flickr user OzMark17 used under CC Share and Share alike licence

Australia's special minister of state has weighed in on solicitor Michael Cordover's freedom of information request to peruse the source code of the application used to count votes in Australian Senate elections with a bizarre suggestion that granting such a request could “leave the voting system open to hacking or manipulation.”

Cordover first applied to see the source code of the EasyCount software last year, was rebuffed, and is now appealing the decision.

Last week Australia's Senate weighed in, passing a motion calling on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to release the code.

Special minister of state Senator Michael Ronaldson has since written to the Clerk of the Senate saying the AEC will do no such thing. The letter (PDF), posted by Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, offers one interesting reason for the refusal, namely that the software is commercial-in-confidence inasmuch as it is used for “industrial and fee-for-service election counting systems”.

That's a reference to the union elections and other polls the AEC conducts for paid clients, and therefore goes some way towards explaining why the system is considered commercial-in-confidence.

The letter also suggests that a code release is not appropriate given Cordover is appealing the AEC's response to his freedom-of-information requests.

But another reason Ronaldson offers is bizarre, as he suggests “I am advised the publication of the software could leave the voting system open to hacking or manipulation.”

Just how is not explained. Perhaps Ronaldson imagines that inspection of the code could lead to the identification of exploitable vulnerabilities.

If that's the case, he appears not to have much confidence in the AEC's overall security capabilities, as even if vulnerabilities were identified attackers would need to penetrate the Commission's networks to manipulate an election.

Might that already have happened? If so, might such attacks be the reason for the advice given to Ronaldson? Vulture South is looking into things. ®

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