Archive for the ‘Electronic Voting’ Category

Sorry to have another post on our national election problems, but here it is anyway.

In my post below, I quote the Diebold folks saying that any “unlikely” problems with their failure- and hacker-prone election machines can be fixed by “just” implementing “appropriate manual controls.” Well, just in time to take care of that fantasy, two independent study groups have issued reports totaling over 500 pages analyzing the performance of the procedures surrounding the May primary election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which used the Diebold machines. There is an article summarizing the findings in Wired.com, and for the stout of heart it links to the original reports issued by the Cuyahoga Election Review Panel and the Election Science Institute (which had been hired by the Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners).

Wired says, in part:

“The reports, totaling more than 500 pages, paint a disturbing picture of how million-dollar equipment and security safeguards can quickly be undone by poor product design, improper election procedures and inadequate training. From destroyed ballots and vote totals that didn’t add up to lost equipment and breaches in security protocols, Cuyahoga’s primary is a perfect study in how not to run an election.

“The findings have ominous national implications. Cuyahoga County could play an important role in deciding two races in next week’s election that will help decide which party controls the Senate and House. But one of the reports concluded that problems in the county were so extensive that meaningful improvements likely could not be achieved before that election, or even before the 2008 presidential election.

“Moreover, few voting activists and election experts believe the problems are unique to Cuyahoga.

“‘I suspect that Cuyahoga County may be below average (in terms of how well it ran its election), but if you lift up the rock and look at election administration across the country, you’ll see the same thing elsewhere,’ says David Dill, Stanford computer scientist and founder of VerifiedVoting.org, a proponent of paper-verified elections.

So much for manual controls saving the day, even presumably with Diebold helping them do it right. Note that Cuyahoga County is a relatively large and well-funded county in a relatively wealthy state; we’re not talking East Nowhere, Idaho here.

The Path to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions, as they always say, and here you have it. A powerful corporation smelling profits does a half-brained job cobbling together equipment that it foists off on county boards, who are not exactly equipped to assess either the risk or implement the appropriate mitigating controls. And we, the electorate, are thus fed to the wolves.


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Two things really distress me this year about the runup to the general election: first, the degree of dismally gratuitous mudslinging among the candidates, and second, the corporate steamroller toward electronic voting machines lead by Diebold, Inc. They boast that “over 130,000 Diebold electronic voting stations are in use” around the country, and boy, what a distressing thought that is.

But it’s not just Diebold, who after all make excellent ATMs, but Diebold is the leader and they have the most well-oiled sales force and the most flawed machine, so they are going to get the brunt of my criticisms. But don’t miss the larger point: I think electronic voting is a very poor idea that opens us up to the specter of rigged elections and, almost as bad, of a public loss of confidence in the accuracy and impartiality of our election process. We in danger of sacrificing this so that a corporation can sell lots of machines. I personally don’t think this is a good trade. And I say this as a lifelong promoter of new technologies in business: this technology really sucks.

Princeton University’s Computer Science Department has issued an excellent critique of the Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine. What the report says is that the machine can be readily compromised physically or via its software to promote vote-stealing and denial-of-service attacks. The review team was able to write several kinds of undetectable code that injected itself into the AccuVote’s software that could carry out any kind of vote manipulation scheme you would like. Furthermore, the machine is so physically insecure that its keyed lock was able to be picked reliably in under 10 seconds by team members. Finally, frosting on the cake, the system software is Windows CE, a terrible choice for a “hardened” operating system.

The Princeton report regards the machines and their software so fundamentally flawed as to require a complete redesign of the whole works, hardware and software.

Of course Diebold on their website publishes a heated and self-righteous “refutation” of the Princeton study, saying “the system was old, we don’t do it that way any more, screws were removed to get inside the machine, a virus was introduced into the machine that is never connected to a network, etc.” PS, guys, viruses are not just network-vectored problems! If this is an example of your security knowledge, well, the product shows it. At the end of their press release, they say, in effect, “well, you just need to have proper procedures at the polling places and that’ll make it secure.”

But all that aside, here’s the fundamental problem with the AccuVote: its all proprietary. And if it’s proprietary, it can’t be demonstrated to be secure. There’s no peer review, no best minds seeking to crack it, no rounds of improvement. It’s called “security by obscurity” and it doesn’t work. The pros — the guys at NSA and the big cryptography companies — publish everything they do, code and all, for the best cryptanalysts in the world to chew on, and when they break it, the algorithm gets improved. Over and over, until it can’t be broken. Then, its secure. Diebold, on the other hand, tries to hide it all behind a veil of “proprietary,” and then cries “foul!” when somebody gets their hands on a machine and starts reverse-engineering the code and breaking it. Hey, you’re not supposed to have access to one!

Come on, who do you think you will be be facing when somebody goes to rig a national election, a bunch of old ladies in Blue Earth County?

Maybe they do think think that. And, there’s the heart of the problem!

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