Entries Tagged "auditing"

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Smartphone Election in Washington State

This year:

King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology.

Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device.

Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else.

The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes.

While advocates say this creates an auditable paper trail, many security experts say that because the ballots cross the Internet before they are printed, any subsequent audits on them would be moot. If a cyberattack occurred, an audit could essentially require double-checking ballots that may already have been altered, says Buell.

Of course it’s not an auditable paper trail. There’s a reason why security experts use the phrase “voter-verifiable paper ballots.” A centralized printout of a received Internet message is not voter verifiable.

Another news article.

Posted on January 27, 2020 at 6:03 AMView Comments

On Financial Fraud

There are some good lessons in this article on financial fraud:

That’s how we got it so wrong. We were looking for incidental breaches of technical regulations, not systematic crime. And the thing is, that’s normal. The nature of fraud is that it works outside your field of vision, subverting the normal checks and balances so that the world changes while the picture stays the same. People in financial markets have been missing the wood for the trees for as long as there have been markets.

[..]

Trust — particularly between complete strangers, with no interactions beside relatively anonymous market transactions — is the basis of the modern industrial economy. And the story of the development of the modern economy is in large part the story of the invention and improvement of technologies and institutions for managing that trust.

And as industrial society develops, it becomes easier to be a victim. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith described how prosperity derived from the division of labour — the 18 distinct operations that went into the manufacture of a pin, for example. While this was going on, the modern world also saw a growing division of trust. The more a society benefits from the division of labour in checking up on things, the further you can go into a con game before you realise that you’re in one.

[…]

Libor teaches us a valuable lesson about commercial fraud — that unlike other crimes, it has a problem of denial as well as one of detection. There are very few other criminal acts where the victim not only consents to the criminal act, but voluntarily transfers the money or valuable goods to the criminal. And the hierarchies, status distinctions and networks that make up a modern economy also create powerful psychological barriers against seeing fraud when it is happening. White-collar crime is partly defined by the kind of person who commits it: a person of high status in the community, the kind of person who is always given the benefit of the doubt.

[…]

Fraudsters don’t play on moral weaknesses, greed or fear; they play on weaknesses in the system of checks and balances — the audit processes that are meant to supplement an overall environment of trust. One point that comes up again and again when looking at famous and large-scale frauds is that, in many cases, everything could have been brought to a halt at a very early stage if anyone had taken care to confirm all the facts. But nobody does confirm all the facts. There are just too bloody many of them. Even after the financial rubble has settled and the arrests been made, this is a huge problem.

Posted on July 25, 2018 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Securing Elections

Elections serve two purposes. The first, and obvious, purpose is to accurately choose the winner. But the second is equally important: to convince the loser. To the extent that an election system is not transparently and auditably accurate, it fails in that second purpose. Our election systems are failing, and we need to fix them.

Today, we conduct our elections on computers. Our registration lists are in computer databases. We vote on computerized voting machines. And our tabulation and reporting is done on computers. We do this for a lot of good reasons, but a side effect is that elections now have all the insecurities inherent in computers. The only way to reliably protect elections from both malice and accident is to use something that is not hackable or unreliable at scale; the best way to do that is to back up as much of the system as possible with paper.

Recently, there have been two graphic demonstrations of how bad our computerized voting system is. In 2007, the states of California and Ohio conducted audits of their electronic voting machines. Expert review teams found exploitable vulnerabilities in almost every component they examined. The researchers were able to undetectably alter vote tallies, erase audit logs, and load malware on to the systems. Some of their attacks could be implemented by a single individual with no greater access than a normal poll worker; others could be done remotely.

Last year, the Defcon hackers’ conference sponsored a Voting Village. Organizers collected 25 pieces of voting equipment, including voting machines and electronic poll books. By the end of the weekend, conference attendees had found ways to compromise every piece of test equipment: to load malicious software, compromise vote tallies and audit logs, or cause equipment to fail.

It’s important to understand that these were not well-funded nation-state attackers. These were not even academics who had been studying the problem for weeks. These were bored hackers, with no experience with voting machines, playing around between parties one weekend.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that voting equipment, including voting machines, voter registration databases, and vote tabulation systems, are that hackable. They’re computers — often ancient computers running operating systems no longer supported by the manufacturers — and they don’t have any magical security technology that the rest of the industry isn’t privy to. If anything, they’re less secure than the computers we generally use, because their manufacturers hide any flaws behind the proprietary nature of their equipment.

We’re not just worried about altering the vote. Sometimes causing widespread failures, or even just sowing mistrust in the system, is enough. And an election whose results are not trusted or believed is a failed election.

Voting systems have another requirement that makes security even harder to achieve: the requirement for a secret ballot. Because we have to securely separate the election-roll system that determines who can vote from the system that collects and tabulates the votes, we can’t use the security systems available to banking and other high-value applications.

We can securely bank online, but can’t securely vote online. If we could do away with anonymity — if everyone could check that their vote was counted correctly — then it would be easy to secure the vote. But that would lead to other problems. Before the US had the secret ballot, voter coercion and vote-buying were widespread.

We can’t, so we need to accept that our voting systems are insecure. We need an election system that is resilient to the threats. And for many parts of the system, that means paper.

Let’s start with the voter rolls. We know they’ve already been targeted. In 2016, someone changed the party affiliation of hundreds of voters before the Republican primary. That’s just one possibility. A well-executed attack that deletes, for example, one in five voters at random — or changes their addresses — would cause chaos on election day.

Yes, we need to shore up the security of these systems. We need better computer, network, and database security for the various state voter organizations. We also need to better secure the voter registration websites, with better design and better internet security. We need better security for the companies that build and sell all this equipment.

Multiple, unchangeable backups are essential. A record of every addition, deletion, and change needs to be stored on a separate system, on write-only media like a DVD. Copies of that DVD, or — even better — a paper printout of the voter rolls, should be available at every polling place on election day. We need to be ready for anything.

Next, the voting machines themselves. Security researchers agree that the gold standard is a voter-verified paper ballot. The easiest (and cheapest) way to achieve this is through optical-scan voting. Voters mark paper ballots by hand; they are fed into a machine and counted automatically. That paper ballot is saved, and serves as a final true record in a recount in case of problems. Touch-screen machines that print a paper ballot to drop in a ballot box can also work for voters with disabilities, as long as the ballot can be easily read and verified by the voter.

Finally, the tabulation and reporting systems. Here again we need more security in the process, but we must always use those paper ballots as checks on the computers. A manual, post-election, risk-limiting audit varies the number of ballots examined according to the margin of victory. Conducting this audit after every election, before the results are certified, gives us confidence that the election outcome is correct, even if the voting machines and tabulation computers have been tampered with. Additionally, we need better coordination and communications when incidents occur.

It’s vital to agree on these procedures and policies before an election. Before the fact, when anyone can win and no one knows whose votes might be changed, it’s easy to agree on strong security. But after the vote, someone is the presumptive winner — and then everything changes. Half of the country wants the result to stand, and half wants it reversed. At that point, it’s too late to agree on anything.

The politicians running in the election shouldn’t have to argue their challenges in court. Getting elections right is in the interest of all citizens. Many countries have independent election commissions that are charged with conducting elections and ensuring their security. We don’t do that in the US.

Instead, we have representatives from each of our two parties in the room, keeping an eye on each other. That provided acceptable security against 20th-century threats, but is totally inadequate to secure our elections in the 21st century. And the belief that the diversity of voting systems in the US provides a measure of security is a dangerous myth, because a few districts can be decisive and there are so few voting-machine vendors.

We can do better. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security declared elections to be critical infrastructure, allowing the department to focus on securing them. On 23 March, Congress allocated $380m to states to upgrade election security.

These are good starts, but don’t go nearly far enough. The constitution delegates elections to the states but allows Congress to “make or alter such Regulations”. In 1845, Congress set a nationwide election day. Today, we need it to set uniform and strict election standards.

This essay originally appeared in the Guardian.

Posted on April 20, 2018 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Auditing Elections for Signs of Hacking

Excellent essay pointing out that election security is a national security issue, and that we need to perform random ballot audits on every future election:

The good news is that we know how to solve this problem. We need to audit computers by manually examining randomly selected paper ballots and comparing the results to machine results. Audits require a voter-verified paper ballot, which the voter inspects to confirm that his or her selections have been correctly and indelibly recorded. Since 2003, an active community of academics, lawyers, election officials and activists has urged states to adopt paper ballots and robust audit procedures. This campaign has had significant, but slow, success. As of now, about three quarters of U.S. voters vote on paper ballots. Twenty-six states do some type of manual audit, but none of their procedures are adequate. Auditing methods have recently been devised that are much more efficient than those used in any state. It is important that audits be performed on every contest in every election, so that citizens do not have to request manual recounts to feel confident about election results. With high-quality audits, it is very unlikely that election fraud will go undetected whether perpetrated by another country or a political party.

Another essay along similar lines.

Related: there is some information about Russian political hacking this election cycle that is classified. My guess is that it has nothing to do with hacking the voting machines — the NSA was on high alert for anything, and I have it on good authority that they found nothing — but something related to either the political-organization hacking, the propaganda machines, or something else before Election Day.

Posted on December 2, 2016 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Election Security

It’s over. The voting went smoothly. As of the time of writing, there are no serious fraud allegations, nor credible evidence that anyone tampered with voting rolls or voting machines. And most important, the results are not in doubt.

While we may breathe a collective sigh of relief about that, we can’t ignore the issue until the next election. The risks remain.

As computer security experts have been saying for years, our newly computerized voting systems are vulnerable to attack by both individual hackers and government-sponsored cyberwarriors. It is only a matter of time before such an attack happens.

Electronic voting machines can be hacked, and those machines that do not include a paper ballot that can verify each voter’s choice can be hacked undetectably. Voting rolls are also vulnerable; they are all computerized databases whose entries can be deleted or changed to sow chaos on Election Day.

The largely ad hoc system in states for collecting and tabulating individual voting results is vulnerable as well. While the difference between theoretical if demonstrable vulnerabilities and an actual attack on Election Day is considerable, we got lucky this year. Not just presidential elections are at risk, but state and local elections, too.

To be very clear, this is not about voter fraud. The risks of ineligible people voting, or people voting twice, have been repeatedly shown to be virtually nonexistent, and “solutions” to this problem are largely voter-suppression measures. Election fraud, however, is both far more feasible and much more worrisome.

Here’s my worry. On the day after an election, someone claims that a result was hacked. Maybe one of the candidates points to a wide discrepancy between the most recent polls and the actual results. Maybe an anonymous person announces that he hacked a particular brand of voting machine, describing in detail how. Or maybe it’s a system failure during Election Day: voting machines recording significantly fewer votes than there were voters, or zero votes for one candidate or another. (These are not theoretical occurrences; they have both happened in the United States before, though because of error, not malice.)

We have no procedures for how to proceed if any of these things happen. There’s no manual, no national panel of experts, no regulatory body to steer us through this crisis. How do we figure out if someone hacked the vote? Can we recover the true votes, or are they lost? What do we do then?

First, we need to do more to secure our elections system. We should declare our voting systems to be critical national infrastructure. This is largely symbolic, but it demonstrates a commitment to secure elections and makes funding and other resources available to states.

We need national security standards for voting machines, and funding for states to procure machines that comply with those standards. Voting-security experts can deal with the technical details, but such machines must include a paper ballot that provides a record verifiable by voters. The simplest and most reliable way to do that is already practiced in 37 states: optical-scan paper ballots, marked by the voters, counted by computer but recountable by hand. And we need a system of pre-election and postelection security audits to increase confidence in the system.

Second, election tampering, either by a foreign power or by a domestic actor, is inevitable, so we need detailed procedures to follow–both technical procedures to figure out what happened, and legal procedures to figure out what to do–that will efficiently get us to a fair and equitable election resolution. There should be a board of independent computer-security experts to unravel what happened, and a board of independent election officials, either at the Federal Election Commission or elsewhere, empowered to determine and put in place an appropriate response.

In the absence of such impartial measures, people rush to defend their candidate and their party. Florida in 2000 was a perfect example. What could have been a purely technical issue of determining the intent of every voter became a battle for who would win the presidency. The debates about hanging chads and spoiled ballots and how broad the recount should be were contested by people angling for a particular outcome. In the same way, after a hacked election, partisan politics will place tremendous pressure on officials to make decisions that override fairness and accuracy.

That is why we need to agree on policies to deal with future election fraud. We need procedures to evaluate claims of voting-machine hacking. We need a fair and robust vote-auditing process. And we need all of this in place before an election is hacked and battle lines are drawn.

In response to Florida, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 required each state to publish its own guidelines on what constitutes a vote. Some states — Indiana, in particular — set up a “war room” of public and private cybersecurity experts ready to help if anything did occur. While the Department of Homeland Security is assisting some states with election security, and the F.B.I. and the Justice Department made some preparations this year, the approach is too piecemeal.

Elections serve two purposes. First, and most obvious, they are how we choose a winner. But second, and equally important, they convince the loser–and all the supporters–that he or she lost. To achieve the first purpose, the voting system must be fair and accurate. To achieve the second one, it must be shown to be fair and accurate.

We need to have these conversations before something happens, when everyone can be calm and rational about the issues. The integrity of our elections is at stake, which means our democracy is at stake.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on November 15, 2016 at 7:09 AMView Comments

The Effectiveness of Privacy Audits

This study concludes that there is a benefit to forcing companies to undergo privacy audits: “The results show that there are empirical regularities consistent with the privacy disclosures in the audited financial statements having some effect. Companies disclosing privacy risks are less likely to incur a breach of privacy related to unintentional disclosure of privacy information; while companies suffering a breach of privacy related to credit cards are more likely to disclose privacy risks afterwards. Disclosure after a breach is negatively related to privacy breaches related to hacking, and disclosure before a breach is positively related to breaches concerning insider trading.”

Posted on July 9, 2013 at 12:17 PMView Comments

Forged Subway Passes in Boston

For years, an employee of Cubic Corp — the company that makes the automatic fare card systems for most of the subway systems around the world — forged and then sold monthly passes for the Boston MBTA system.

The scheme was discovered by accident:

Coakley said the alleged scheme was only discovered after a commuter rail operator asked a rider where he had bought his pass. When the rider said he’d purchased the pass on Craigslist, the operator became suspicious and confiscated the ticket.

An investigation by the MBTA Transit Police found that despite opening electronic gates, the printed serial number in the MBTA database did not show the card had ever been activated. Hundreds of similar passes in use by passengers were then discovered, investigators said.

Although you’d think the MBTA would poke around the net occasionally, looking for discount tickets being sold on places like Craigslist.

Cubic Transportation Systems said in a written statement that it is cooperating with authorities. “Our company has numerous safeguards designed to prevent fraudulent production or distribution of Charlie Tickets,” the statement said, referring to the monthly MBTA passes.

It always amuses me when companies pretend the obvious isn’t true in their press releases. “Someone completely broke our system.” “Say that we have a lot of security.” “But it didn’t work.” “Say it anyway; the press will just blindly report it.”

To be fair, we don’t — and probably will never — know how this proprietary system was broken. In this case, an insider did it. But did that insider just have access to the system specifications, or was access to blank ticket stock or specialized equipment necessary as well?

EDITED TO ADD (5/22): More details:

On March 11, a conductor on the commuter rail’s Providence/Stoughton Line did a double-take when a customer flashed a discolored monthly pass, its arrow an unusually light shade of orange. The fading, caused by inadvertent laundering, would have happened even if the pass were legitimate, but the customer, perhaps out of nervousness, volunteered that he had purchased it at a discount on Craigslist, Coakley said.

That raised the conductor’s suspicion. He collected the pass and turned it over to the Transit Police, who found no record of its serial number and began investigating. Working with State Police from Coakley’s office, they traced it to equipment at the Beverly branch of Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. and then specifically to an employee: Townes, a 27-year-old Revere resident.

Auditing could have discovered the fraud much earlier:

A records check would have indicated that the serial numbers were not tied to accounts for paying customers. But the financially strapped MBTA, which handles thousands of passes and moves millions of riders a month, did not have practices in place to sniff out the small percentage of unauthorized passes in circulation, Davey said.

Posted on May 20, 2011 at 7:44 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.