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Criticizing the criticisms in an ongoing e-voting saga

Representatives from three voting machine companies expressed their criticisms against a California state-sponsored “top-to-bottom review” that found “very real” vulnerabilities in their products.

The study was lead by UC Davis professor Matt Bishop, who discussed the study at a hearing held by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose office is currently deciding whether or not to allow the machines’ use during the Feb. 5 presidential primary.

Under a contract with UC Davis and Bowen’s office, Bishop’s study examined machines from Diebold Election Systems, Hart Intercivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems. The conclusions, partially released last week, included findings that the voting systems posed difficulties for voters with disabilities and were vulnerable to intrusion. "It may be that all of [the vulnerabilities] can be protected against. It may be that some cannot,” said Bishop.  According to Secretary Bowen, a fourth company, Election Systems & Software, was also to be included in the review but was omitted because it was late in providing needed information to her office.

According to state law, Bowen has until Friday to set the rules for the upcoming primary election.  "I intend to go through a methodical process to determine what to do next," she said.

Sequoia Systems, in a statement released Monday on their web site, called the study’s findings “implausible,” objecting to the fact that the study was conducted in a closed lab environment over a period of weeks as opposed to a true election environment or in accordance with ISO criteria. “None of the attacks described … are capable of success,” said Sequoia sales executive Steven Bennett to a panel of officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Diebold and Sequoia further pointed out that the study evaluated outdated versions of the voting machines and their software. “While it cannot be guaranteed that all of the extremely improbable vulnerabilities identified are prevented by subsequent product development and updates, many are specifically addressed,” said Sequoia. However, Sequoia acknowledged that it is working to insure that the “few system vulnerabilities” found could not be used to tamper with election results.

“Voting system reliability is something we're always working at improving … security is never finished,” said Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Schafer.

Hart Intercivic also objected to the study’s laboratory environment, stressing it was not a considerable substitute for real-world “people, processes, procedures, policies, and technology” and, in the company’s official statement, suggested that a better study might “define a realistic threat that faces all layers of security in an election.”

Even members of the security community have questioned the study’s approach: “While the goals of this effort were laudable, our organization is concerned about its execution,” writes Jim March of watchdog group Black Box Voting, to Secretary Bowen. “Your agency's review only partially examines the risks of inside manipulation with these systems. Procedural remedies can be circumvented by those with some level of inside access. In fact, we would contend that the most high risk scenario of all is that of inside manipulation, and we would also contend that the systems used in California cannot be secured from inside tampering.”

Since their inception, voting machines in the US have received a bad rap amidst a storm of negative press, mishaps, and concern about their ability to be tampered with:

In September 2006, Princeton researchers were able to hack Diebold’s AccuVote-TS machine, going so far as to write a computer virus that spread between other Diebold machines. Later, voting machines from Sequoia were also found to have similar vulnerabilities. “You can’t detect it,” explained Princeton Professor Andrew Appel.

In the same month, a team of untrained 54-year-old women from Black Box Voting, using 4 minutes’ worth of time and $12 in tools, were able to circumvent tamper-proof seals on a Diebold vote scanner, and were able to replace the device’s memory card.

Also in September 2006, a consulting firm working for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County -- which includes Cleveland -- found huge discrepancies between the electronic and paper records kept by Diebold voting machines. Ohio was a key swing state for the tight 2004 presidential election, and its electoral votes help decide the result.

Earlier that year in August, Diebold voting machines botched the Alaska preliminaries in several precincts as they failed to connect to their dial-up servers to upload vote results, slowing the election considerably. Officials had to hand-count votes and manually upload the totals to the central server.

In December 2005, a Diebold whistleblower under the name of “Dieb-throat,” who was once a “staunch supporter of electronic voting’s potential” gave a scathing interview to The Raw Story accusing Diebold of mismanagement and burying known backdoors in their own products, including one that made the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Alert System for the first week of September 2004.

In 2004, Black Box Voting released a video demonstrating that a chimp, given an hour of training, was able to hack a Diebold voting machine. “What you saw was a staged production ... analogous to a magic show,” said Diebold spokesman David Bear, in response.

These findings, as well as others both negative and positive, culminated in a March 2007 warning from the US Government Audit Office as it testified before the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government: “[E-voting] security and reliability concerns are legitimate and thus merit the combined and focused attention of federal, state, and local authorities responsible for election administration.”

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By brshoemak on 8/1/2007 7:56:00 AM , Rating: 3
So let me get this straight. A non-independent study was done in association with a person (Bowen) who is vehemently against these voting machines, in a closed environment, where they had weeks to work on cracking them, were given the source code and ample knowledge of the inner-workings of the machines and they are surprised and shocked when they were cracked? Not to mention the possibility of an inside job?

She must be glad she has a political soapbox to stand on now. I'm not trying to attack anyone but c'mon.

Thief tries to break in to your house with a great electronic lock on it. They can't take it off, go home, look over it, get inside information on the software inside it from the vendor, spend two weeks on it, bring it back, crack it and call it successful. There is also not usually another thief inside waiting to unlock the doors of random houses(inside job). I'm not saying these voting machine are perfect, far from it; but the results of this ridiculous study were known before it started. Hacker + Resources + Time = Wide Open

RE: Wha..?
By akugami on 8/1/2007 10:30:44 AM , Rating: 2
The problem is how safe the information on these machines are. I understand the need for said info to be released to state agencies that deal with security but we've seen all too often where the information is kept behind flimsy security and easily accessed by those who have decent knowledge of computer security.

Given that the thieves have a chance at accessing the secured code, etc, etc, they can crack the voting machines. I would also like to see how easily compromised the machines are without anything but what is supposed to be publicly known about these machines. This will give you both perspectives and a truer view on how easy it would be to crack into these machines be it physical or digital.

RE: Wha..?
By Lightning III on 8/1/2007 12:50:35 PM , Rating: 1

Dooofus again

well since the diebold mobo for this system can be found on e-bay I guess he can take the lock home

RE: Wha..?
By brshoemak on 8/2/2007 8:01:01 AM , Rating: 2
I'd like to see where the source code is that actually runs the machine is on ebay. Let me know if you find it. Hardware is nothing. That's like saying all of one model of servers are the same in terms of security regardless of what software is running on it and how it's setup.

RE: Wha..?
By PandaBear on 8/1/2007 12:57:23 PM , Rating: 2
Matt Bishop is rigging the research in a close lab behind the door? He is one of the best if not the best security researcher in the US.

The only thing I can think of about him is that he is tough, and can find security holes every where you least expected it. But come on, every system on earth have security holes, it is a matter of how secure it is and is the security stronger than the thing it needs to be protected that matters. FYI paper voting is also not completely secure, but the question is whether it is more or less secure than the voting machines being tested.

I have taken his computer security course, and can tell you that the way he can think of how and where a system can be hacked is second to none. Heck, in our class we have to hack into a server secure by him as an assignment. He claims to have "completely" secured it by himself and within 24 hrs, one of the student broke in. That shows you how hard it is to make something completely secure.

Maybe Bowen picked Matt Bishop because she knew he is so tough, but that's what security analysis is all about, test it well. It is not Matt Bishop being biased, he is doing his job.

Even if you have paper trail, how can you be sure that the vote counting matches what people vote on? Even if you get a receipt and verify at home, how do you know that the verification at home shows the same thing as the vote counting result? Unless you keep a transaction record that can be traced back to the voter, but then everyone will know who you vote for even if you want to kept your privacy. Imagine if one day this country falls to a dictator and he will come get you if you don't vote for him, how do you protect yourself?

RE: Wha..?
By theapparition on 8/2/2007 10:02:55 AM , Rating: 2
Even if you have paper trail, how can you be sure that the vote counting matches what people vote on? Even if you get a receipt and verify at home, how do you know that the verification at home shows the same thing as the vote counting result?

In my mind, the receipt will be copy transfer paper, so the original (or copy) is still in the machine, on a roll. That way, if there is an issue, the electronic vote count could be compared to the paper. It would be very hard for a hacker to mess with transfer paper, where the original differs from the transfer, that would have to be done with signifigant modifications to the machine hardware. Cash registers have been doing this for ages. Nothing super complex there.

Now, if the roll goes missing, no way to check the electronic votes, but the same can be said if a box of paper ballots goes missing. History has shown us that going electonic has simplified operations, made them more secure (<-yes that true), and has signifigantly reduced error. No reason to fear change.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller
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