Friday, May 12, 2006

Worse Security Glitch Found in Diebold Voting Systems

This report by Ian Hoffman in is stunning.
Elections officials in several states are scrambling to understand and limit the risk from a "dangerous" security hole found in Diebold Election Systems Inc.'s ATM-like touch-screen voting machines.

The hole is considered more worrisome than most security problems discovered on modern voting machines, such as weak encryption, easily pickable locks and use of the same, weak password nationwide.

Armed with a little basic knowledge of Diebold voting systems and a standard component available at any computer store, someone with a minute or two of access to a Diebold touch screen could load virtually any software into the machine and disable it, redistribute votes or alter its performance in myriad ways.

"This one is worse than any of the others I've seen. It's more fundamental," said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist and veteran voting-system examiner for the state of Iowa.

"In the other ones, we've been arguing about the security of the locks on the front door," Jones said. "Now we find that there's no back door. This is the kind of thing where if the states don't get out in front of the hackers, there's a real threat." ...

Scientists said Diebold appeared to have opened the hole by making it as easy as possible to upgrade the software inside its machines. The result, said Iowa's Jones, is a violation of federal voting system rules.

"All of us who have heard the technical details of this are really shocked. It defies reason that anyone who works with security would tolerate this design," he said.
Harri Hursti's report.

Avi Rubin and Ed Felten's comments.
The attacks described in Hursti’s report would allow anyone who had physical access to a voting machine for a few minutes to install malicious software code on that machine, using simple, widely available tools. The malicious code, once installed, would control all of the functions of the voting machine, including the counting of votes.

Hursti’s findings suggest the possibililty of other attacks, not described in his report, that are even more worrisome.

In addition, compromised machines would be very difficult to detect or to repair. The normal procedure for installing software updates on the machines could not be trusted, because malicious code could cause that procedure to report success, without actually installing any updates. A technician who tried to update the machine’s software would be misled into thinking the update had been installed, when it actually had not.

On election day, malicious software could refuse to function, or it could silently miscount votes.

Election officials are in a very tough spot with this latest vulnerability. Since exploiting the weakness requires physical access to a machine, physical security is of the utmost importance. All Diebold Accuvote machines should be sequestered and kept under vigilant watch. This measure is not perfect because it is possible that the machines are already compromised, and if it was done by a clever attacker, there may be no way to determine whether or not this is the case. Worse yet, the usual method of patching software problems cannot be trusted in this case...

Using general purpose computers as voting machines has long been criticized by computer scientists. This latest vulnerability highlights the reasoning behind this position. This attack is possible due to the very nature of the hardware on which the systems are running. Several high profile studies failed to uncover this. With the current technology, there is no way to account for all the ways that a system might be vulnerable, and the discovery of a problem of this magnitude in the midst of primary season is the kind of scenario we have feared all along...

We believe that the question of whether DREs based on commodity hardware and operating systems should ever be used in elections needs serious consideration by government and election officials. As computer security experts, we believe that the known dangers and potentially unknown vulnerabilities are too great. We should not put ourselves in a position where, in the middle of primary season, the security of our voting systems comes into credible and legitimate question.
New York Times article [registration required].
"It's the most severe security flaw ever discovered in a voting system," said Michael I. Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who is an examiner of electronic voting systems for Pennsylvania, where the primary is to take place on Tuesday...

Aviel Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, did the first in-depth analysis of the security flaws in the source code for Diebold touch-screen machines in 2003. After studying the latest problem, he said: "I almost had a heart attack. The implications of this are pretty astounding."
Previous post, and previous previous post.

I know that absentee voting presents its own problems, but I, for one, plan to request an absentee ballot rather than use a DRE machine.

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