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On Blockchain Voting

Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:

Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.

For starters:

  • It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
  • It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
  • It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.

I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.

But now I have this excellent paper from MIT researchers:

“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”
Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest

Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.

You may have heard of Voatz, which uses blockchain for voting. It’s an insecure mess. And this is my general essay on blockchain. Short summary: it’s completely useless.

Posted on November 16, 2020 at 9:55 AMView Comments

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:

The list is maintained on this page.

Posted on November 14, 2020 at 12:35 PMView Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Underwater Robot Uses Squid-Like Propulsion

This is neat:

By generating powerful streams of water, UCSD’s squid-like robot can swim untethered. The “squidbot” carries its own power source, and has the room to hold more, including a sensor or camera for underwater exploration.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on November 13, 2020 at 4:09 PMView Comments

Inrupt’s Solid Announcement

Earlier this year, I announced that I had joined Inrupt, the company commercializing Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid specification:

The idea behind Solid is both simple and extraordinarily powerful. Your data lives in a pod that is controlled by you. Data generated by your things — your computer, your phone, your IoT whatever — is written to your pod. You authorize granular access to that pod to whoever you want for whatever reason you want. Your data is no longer in a bazillion places on the Internet, controlled by you-have-no-idea-who. It’s yours. If you want your insurance company to have access to your fitness data, you grant it through your pod. If you want your friends to have access to your vacation photos, you grant it through your pod. If you want your thermostat to share data with your air conditioner, you give both of them access through your pod.

This week, Inrupt announced the availability of the commercial-grade Enterprise Solid Server, along with a small but impressive list of initial customers of the product and the specification (like the UK National Health Service). This is a significant step forward to realizing Tim’s vision:

The technologies we’re releasing today are a component of a much-needed course correction for the web. It’s exciting to see organizations using Solid to improve the lives of everyday people — through better healthcare, more efficient government services and much more.

These first major deployments of the technology will kick off the network effect necessary to ensure the benefits of Solid will be appreciated on a massive scale. Once users have a Solid Pod, the data there can be extended, linked, and repurposed in valuable new ways. And Solid’s growing community of developers can be rest assured that their apps will benefit from the widespread adoption of reliable Solid Pods, already populated with valuable data that users are empowered to share.

A few news articles. Slashdot thread.

Posted on November 13, 2020 at 2:17 PMView Comments

New Zealand Election Fraud

It seems that this election season has not gone without fraud. In New Zealand, a vote for “Bird of the Year” has been marred by fraudulent votes:

More than 1,500 fraudulent votes were cast in the early hours of Monday in the country’s annual bird election, briefly pushing the Little-Spotted Kiwi to the top of the leaderboard, organizers and environmental organization Forest & Bird announced Tuesday.

Those votes — which were discovered by the election’s official scrutineers — have since been removed. According to election spokesperson Laura Keown, the votes were cast using fake email addresses that were all traced back to the same IP address in Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city.

It feels like writing this story was a welcome distraction from writing about the US election:

“No one has to worry about the integrity of our bird election,” she told Radio New Zealand, adding that every vote would be counted.

Asked whether Russia had been involved, she denied any “overseas interference” in the vote.

I’m sure that’s a relief to everyone involved.

Posted on November 13, 2020 at 6:25 AMView Comments

“Privacy Nutrition Labels” in Apple’s App Store

Apple will start requiring standardized privacy labels for apps in its app store, starting in December:

Apple allows data disclosure to be optional if all of the following conditions apply: if it’s not used for tracking, advertising or marketing; if it’s not shared with a data broker; if collection is infrequent, unrelated to the app’s primary function, and optional; and if the user chooses to provide the data in conjunction with clear disclosure, the user’s name or account name is prominently displayed with the submission.

Otherwise, the privacy labeling is mandatory and requires a fair amount of detail. Developers must disclose the use of contact information, health and financial data, location data, user content, browsing history, search history, identifiers, usage data, diagnostics, and more. If a software maker is collecting the user’s data to display first or third-party adverts, this has to be disclosed.

These disclosures then get translated to a card-style interface displayed with app product pages in the platform-appropriate App Store.

The concept of a privacy nutrition label isn’t new, and has been well-explored at CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University.

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 6:22 AMView Comments

The Security Failures of Online Exam Proctoring

Proctoring an online exam is hard. It’s hard to be sure that the student isn’t cheating, maybe by having reference materials at hand, or maybe by substituting someone else to take the exam for them. There are a variety of companies that provide online proctoring services, but they’re uniformly mediocre:

The remote proctoring industry offers a range of services, from basic video links that allow another human to observe students as they take exams to algorithmic tools that use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect cheating.

But asking students to install software to monitor them during a test raises a host of fairness issues, experts say.

“There’s a big gulf between what this technology promises, and what it actually does on the ground,” said Audrey Watters, a researcher on the edtech industry who runs the website Hack Education.

“(They) assume everyone looks the same, takes tests the same way, and responds to stressful situations in the same way.”

The article discusses the usual failure modes: facial recognition systems that are more likely to fail on students with darker faces, suspicious-movement-detection systems that fail on students with disabilities, and overly intrusive systems that collect all sorts of data from student computers.

I teach cybersecurity policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. My solution, which seems like the obvious one, is not to give timed closed-book exams in the first place. This doesn’t work for things like the legal bar exam, which can’t modify itself so quickly. But this feels like an arms race where the cheater has a large advantage, and any remote proctoring system will be plagued with false positives.

Posted on November 11, 2020 at 10:25 AMView Comments

2020 Was a Secure Election

Over at Lawfare: “2020 Is An Election Security Success Story (So Far).”

What’s more, the voting itself was remarkably smooth. It was only a few months ago that professionals and analysts who monitor election administration were alarmed at how badly unprepared the country was for voting during a pandemic. Some of the primaries were disasters. There were not clear rules in many states for voting by mail or sufficient opportunities for voting early. There was an acute shortage of poll workers. Yet the United States saw unprecedented turnout over the last few weeks. Many states handled voting by mail and early voting impressively and huge numbers of volunteers turned up to work the polls. Large amounts of litigation before the election clarified the rules in every state. And for all the president’s griping about the counting of votes, it has been orderly and apparently without significant incident. The result was that, in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 230,000 Americans, record numbers of Americans voted­ — and voted by mail — ­and those votes are almost all counted at this stage.

On the cybersecurity front, there is even more good news. Most significantly, there was no serious effort to target voting infrastructure. After voting concluded, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Chris Krebs, released a statement, saying that “after millions of Americans voted, we have no evidence any foreign adversary was capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies.” Krebs pledged to “remain vigilant for any attempts by foreign actors to target or disrupt the ongoing vote counting and final certification of results,” and no reports have emerged of threats to tabulation and certification processes.

A good summary.

Posted on November 10, 2020 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Detecting Phishing Emails

Research paper: Rick Wash, “How Experts Detect Phishing Scam Emails“:

Abstract: Phishing scam emails are emails that pretend to be something they are not in order to get the recipient of the email to undertake some action they normally would not. While technical protections against phishing reduce the number of phishing emails received, they are not perfect and phishing remains one of the largest sources of security risk in technology and communication systems. To better understand the cognitive process that end users can use to identify phishing messages, I interviewed 21 IT experts about instances where they successfully identified emails as phishing in their own inboxes. IT experts naturally follow a three-stage process for identifying phishing emails. In the first stage, the email recipient tries to make sense of the email, and understand how it relates to other things in their life. As they do this, they notice discrepancies: little things that are “off” about the email. As the recipient notices more discrepancies, they feel a need for an alternative explanation for the email. At some point, some feature of the email — usually, the presence of a link requesting an action — triggers them to recognize that phishing is a possible alternative explanation. At this point, they become suspicious (stage two) and investigate the email by looking for technical details that can conclusively identify the email as phishing. Once they find such information, then they move to stage three and deal with the email by deleting it or reporting it. I discuss ways this process can fail, and implications for improving training of end users about phishing.

Posted on November 6, 2020 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.