Entries Tagged "Diebold"

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Voting Technology and Security

Last week in Florida’s 13th Congressional district, the victory margin was only 386 votes out of 153,000. There’ll be a mandatory lawyered-up recount, but it won’t include the almost 18,000 votes that seem to have disappeared. The electronic voting machines didn’t include them in their final tallies, and there’s no backup to use for the recount. The district will pick a winner to send to Washington, but it won’t be because they are sure the majority voted for him. Maybe the majority did, and maybe it didn’t. There’s no way to know.

Electronic voting machines represent a grave threat to fair and accurate elections, a threat that every American—Republican, Democrat or independent—should be concerned about. Because they’re computer-based, the deliberate or accidental actions of a few can swing an entire election. The solution: Paper ballots, which can be verified by voters and recounted if necessary.

To understand the security of electronic voting machines, you first have to consider election security in general. The goal of any voting system is to capture the intent of each voter and collect them all into a final tally. In practice, this occurs through a series of transfer steps. When I voted last week, I transferred my intent onto a paper ballot, which was then transferred to a tabulation machine via an optical scan reader; at the end of the night, the individual machine tallies were transferred by election officials to a central facility and combined into a single result I saw on television.

All election problems are errors introduced at one of these steps, whether it’s voter disenfranchisement, confusing ballots, broken machines or ballot stuffing. Even in normal operations, each step can introduce errors. Voting accuracy, therefore, is a matter of 1) minimizing the number of steps, and 2) increasing the reliability of each step.

Much of our election security is based on “security by competing interests.” Every step, with the exception of voters completing their single anonymous ballots, is witnessed by someone from each major party; this ensures that any partisan shenanigans—or even honest mistakes—will be caught by the other observers. This system isn’t perfect, but it’s worked pretty well for a couple hundred years.

Electronic voting is like an iceberg; the real threats are below the waterline where you can’t see them. Paperless electronic voting machines bypass that security process, allowing a small group of people—or even a single hacker—to affect an election. The problem is software—programs that are hidden from view and cannot be verified by a team of Republican and Democrat election judges, programs that can drastically change the final tallies. And because all that’s left at the end of the day are those electronic tallies, there’s no way to verify the results or to perform a recount. Recounts are important.

This isn’t theoretical. In the U.S., there have been hundreds of documented cases of electronic voting machines distorting the vote to the detriment of candidates from both political parties: machines losing votes, machines swapping the votes for candidates, machines registering more votes for a candidate than there were voters, machines not registering votes at all. I would like to believe these are all mistakes and not deliberate fraud, but the truth is that we can’t tell the difference. And these are just the problems we’ve caught; it’s almost certain that many more problems have escaped detection because no one was paying attention.

This is both new and terrifying. For the most part, and throughout most of history, election fraud on a massive scale has been hard; it requires very public actions or a highly corrupt government—or both. But electronic voting is different: a lone hacker can affect an election. He can do his work secretly before the machines are shipped to the polling stations. He can affect an entire area’s voting machines. And he can cover his tracks completely, writing code that deletes itself after the election.

And that assumes well-designed voting machines. The actual machines being sold by companies like Diebold, Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software are much worse. The software is badly designed. Machines are “protected” by hotel minibar keys. Vote tallies are stored in easily changeable files. Machines can be infected with viruses. Some voting software runs on Microsoft Windows, with all the bugs and crashes and security vulnerabilities that introduces. The list of inadequate security practices goes on and on.

The voting machine companies counter that such attacks are impossible because the machines are never left unattended (they’re not), the memory cards that hold the votes are carefully controlled (they’re not), and everything is supervised (it isn’t). Yes, they’re lying, but they’re also missing the point.

We shouldn’t—and don’t—have to accept voting machines that might someday be secure only if a long list of operational procedures are followed precisely. We need voting machines that are secure regardless of how they’re programmed, handled and used, and that can be trusted even if they’re sold by a partisan company, or a company with possible ties to Venezuela.

Sounds like an impossible task, but in reality, the solution is surprisingly easy. The trick is to use electronic voting machines as ballot-generating machines. Vote by whatever automatic touch-screen system you want: a machine that keeps no records or tallies of how people voted, but only generates a paper ballot. The voter can check it for accuracy, then process it with an optical-scan machine. The second machine provides the quick initial tally, while the paper ballot provides for recounts when necessary. And absentee and backup ballots can be counted the same way.

You can even do away with the electronic vote-generation machines entirely and hand-mark your ballots like we do in Minnesota. Or run a 100% mail-in election like Oregon does. Again, paper ballots are the key.

Paper? Yes, paper. A stack of paper is harder to tamper with than a number in a computer’s memory. Voters can see their vote on paper, regardless of what goes on inside the computer. And most important, everyone understands paper. We get into hassles over our cellphone bills and credit card mischarges, but when was the last time you had a problem with a $20 bill? We know how to count paper. Banks count it all the time. Both Canada and the U.K. count paper ballots with no problems, as do the Swiss. We can do it, too. In today’s world of computer crashes, worms and hackers, a low-tech solution is the most secure.

Secure voting machines are just one component of a fair and honest election, but they’re an increasingly important part. They’re where a dedicated attacker can most effectively commit election fraud (and we know that changing the results can be worth millions). But we shouldn’t forget other voter suppression tactics: telling people the wrong polling place or election date, taking registered voters off the voting rolls, having too few machines at polling places, or making it onerous for people to register. (Oddly enough, ineligible people voting isn’t a problem in the U.S., despite political rhetoric to the contrary; every study shows their numbers to be so small as to be insignificant. And photo ID requirements actually cause more problems than they solve.)

Voting is as much a perception issue as it is a technological issue. It’s not enough for the result to be mathematically accurate; every citizen must also be confident that it is correct. Around the world, people protest or riot after an election not when their candidate loses, but when they think their candidate lost unfairly. It is vital for a democracy that an election both accurately determine the winner and adequately convince the loser. In the U.S., we’re losing the perception battle.

The current crop of electronic voting machines fail on both counts. The results from Florida’s 13th Congressional district are neither accurate nor convincing. As a democracy, we deserve better. We need to refuse to vote on electronic voting machines without a voter-verifiable paper ballot, and to continue to pressure our legislatures to implement voting technology that works.

This essay originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Avi Rubin wrote a good essay on voting for Forbes as well.

Posted on November 13, 2006 at 5:47 AMView Comments

New Diebold Vulnerability

Ed Felten and his team at Princeton have analyzed a Diebold machine:

This paper presents a fully independent security study of a Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine, including its hardware and software. We obtained the machine from a private party. Analysis of the machine, in light of real election procedures, shows that it is vulnerable to extremely serious attacks. For example, an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates. An attacker could also create malicious code that spreads automatically and silently from machine to machine during normal election activities—a voting-machine virus. We have constructed working demonstrations of these attacks in our lab. Mitigating these threats will require changes to the voting machine’s hardware and software and the adoption of more rigorous election procedures.

(Executive summary. Full paper. FAQ. Video demonstration.)

Salon said:

Diebold has repeatedly disputed the findings then as speculation. But the Princeton study appears to demonstrate conclusively that a single malicious person could insert a virus into a machine and flip votes. The study also reveals a number of other vulnerabilities, including that voter access cards used on Diebold systems could be created inexpensively on a personal laptop computer, allowing people to vote as many times as they wish.

More news stories.

Posted on September 14, 2006 at 3:32 PMView Comments

Open Voting Foundation Releases Huge Diebold Voting Machine Flaw

It’s on their website:

“Diebold has made the testing and certification process practically irrelevant,” according to Dechert. “If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election, anything is possible with the Diebold TS—and it could be done without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.” This model does not produce a voter verified paper trail so there is no way to check if the voter’s choices are accurately reflected in the tabulation.

Open Voting Foundation is releasing 22 high-resolution close up pictures of the system. This picture, in particular, shows a “BOOT AREA CONFIGURATION” chart painted on the system board.

The most serious issue is the ability to choose between “EPROM” and “FLASH” boot configurations. Both of these memory sources are present. All of the switches in question (JP2, JP3, JP8, SW2 and SW4) are physically present on the board. It is clear that this system can ship with live boot profiles in two locations, and switching back and forth could change literally everything regarding how the machine works and counts votes. This could be done before or after the so-called “Logic And Accuracy Tests”.

If this is true, this is an enormously big deal.

Posted on August 4, 2006 at 11:27 AMView Comments

The League of Women Voters Supports Voter-Verifiable Paper Trails

For a long time, the League of Women Voters (LWV) had been on the wrong side of the electronic voting machine issue. They were in favor of electronic machines, and didn’t see the need for voter-verifiable paper trails. (They use to have a horrid and misleading Q&A about the issue on their website, but it’s gone now. Barbara Simons published a rebuttal, which includes their original Q&A.)

The politics of the LWV are byzantine, but basically there are local leagues under state leagues, which in turn are under the national (LWVUS) league. There is a national convention once every other year, and all sorts of resolutions are passed by the membership. But the national office can do a lot to undercut the membership and the state leagues. The politics of voting machines is an example of this.

At the 2004 convention, the LWV membership passed a resolution on electronic voting called “SARA,” which stood for “Secure, Accurate, Recountable, and Accessible.” Those in favor of the resolution thought that “recountable” meant auditable, which meant voter-verifiable paper trails. But the national LWV office decided to spin SARA to say that recountable does not imply paper. While they could no longer oppose paper outright, they refused to say that paper was desirable. For example, they held Georgia’s system up as a model, and Georgia uses paperless Diebold DRE machines. It makes you wonder if the LWVUS leadership is in someone’s pocket.

So at the 2006 convention, the LWV membership passed another resolution. This one was much more clearly worded: designed to make it impossible for the national office to pretend that the LWV was not in favor of voter-verified paper trails.

Unfortunately, the League of Women Voters has not issued a press release about this resolution. (There is a press release by VerifiedVoting.org about it.) I’m sure that the national office simply doesn’t want to acknowledge the membership’s position on the issue, and wishes the issue would just go away quietly. It’s a pity; the resolution is a great one and worth publicizing.

Here’s the text of the resolution:

Resolution Related to Program Requiring a Voter-Verifiable Paper Ballot or Paper Record with Electronic Voting Machines

Motion to adopt the following resolution related to program requiring a voter-verified paper ballot or paper record with electronic voting systems.

Whereas: Some LWVs have had difficulty applying the SARA Resolution (Secure, Accurate, Recountable and Accessible) passed at the last Convention, and

Whereas: Paperless electronic voting systems are not inherently secure, can malfunction, and do not provide a recountable audit trail,

Therefore be it resolved that:

The position on the Citizens’ Right to Vote be interpreted to affirm that LWVUS supports only voting systems that are designed so that:

  1. they employ a voter-verifiable paper ballot or other paper record, said paper being the official record of the voter¹s intent; and
  2. the voter can verify, either by eye or with the aid of suitable devices for those who have impaired vision, that the paper ballot/record accurately reflects his or her intent; and
  3. such verification takes place while the voter is still in the process of voting; and
  4. the paper ballot/record is used for audits and recounts; and
  5. the vote totals can be verified by an independent hand count of the paper ballot/record; and
  6. routine audits of the paper ballot/record in randomly selected precincts can be conducted in every election, and the results published by the jurisdiction.

By the way, the 2006 LWV membership also voted on a resolution in favor of net neutrality (the Connecticut league issued a press release, because they spearheaded the issue), and one against the death penalty. The national LWV office hasn’t issued a press release about those two issues, either.

Posted on July 5, 2006 at 1:32 PMView Comments

Brennan Center Report on Security of Voting Systems

I have been participating in the Brennan Center’s Task Force on Voting Security. Last week we released a report on the security of voting systems.

From the Executive Summary:

In 2005, the Brennan Center convened a Task Force of internationally renowned government, academic, and private-sector scientists, voting machine experts and security professionals to conduct the nation’s first systematic analysis of security vulnerabilities in the three most commonly purchased electronic voting systems. The Task Force spent more than a year conducting its analysis and drafting this report. During this time, the methodology, analysis, and text were extensively peer reviewed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”).


The Task Force examined security threats to the technologies used in Direct Recording Electronic voting systems (“DREs”), DREs with a voter verified auditable paper trail (“DREs w/ VVPT”) and Precinct Count Optical Scan (“PCOS”) systems. The analysis assumes that appropriate physical security and accounting procedures are all in place.


Three fundamental points emerge from the threat analysis in the Security Report:

  • All three voting systems have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities, which pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state, and local elections.
  • The most troubling vulnerabilities of each system can be substantially remedied if proper countermeasures are implemented at the state and local level.
  • Few jurisdictions have implemented any of the key countermeasures that could make the least difficult attacks against voting systems much more difficult to execute successfully.


There are a number of steps that jurisdictions can take to address the vulnerabilities identified in the Security Report and make their voting systems significantly more secure. We recommend adoption of the following security measures:

  1. Conduct automatic routine audits comparing voter verified paper records to the electronic record following every election. A voter verified paper record accompanied by a solid automatic routine audit of those records can go a long way toward making the least difficult attacks much more difficult.
  2. Perform “parallel testing” (selection of voting machines at random and testing them as realistically as possible on Election Day.) For paperless DREs, in particular, parallel testing will help jurisdictions detect software-based attacks, as well as subtle software bugs that may not be discovered during inspection and other testing.
  3. Ban use of voting machines with wireless components. All three voting systems are more vulnerable to attack if they have wireless components.
  4. Use a transparent and random selection process for all auditing procedures. For any auditing to be effective (and to ensure that the public is confident in
    such procedures), jurisdictions must develop and implement transparent and random selection procedures.

  5. Ensure decentralized programming and voting system administration. Where a single entity, such as a vendor or state or national consultant, performs key tasks for multiple jurisdictions, attacks against statewide elections become easier.
  6. Institute clear and effective procedures for addressing evidence of fraud or error. Both automatic routine audits and parallel testing are of questionable security value without effective procedures for action where evidence of machine malfunction and/or fraud is discovered. Detection of fraud without an appropriate response will not prevent attacks from succeeding.

    The report is long, but I think it’s worth reading. If you’re short on time, though, at least read the Executive Summary.

    The report has generated some press. Unfortunately, the news articles recycle some of the lame points that Diebold continues to make in the face of this kind of analysis:

    Voting machine vendors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying they are theoretical and do not reflect the real-life experience of running elections, such as how machines are kept in a secure environment.

    “It just isn’t the piece of equipment,” said David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold Election Systems, one of the country’s largest vendors. “It’s all the elements of an election environment that make for a secure election.”

    “This report is based on speculation rather than an examination of the record. To date, voting systems have not been successfully attacked in a live election,” said Bob Cohen, a spokesman for the Election Technology Council, a voting machine vendors’ trade group. “The purported vulnerabilities presented in this study, while interesting in theory, would be extremely difficult to exploit.”

    I wish The Washington Post found someone to point out that there have been many, many irregularities with electronic voting machines over the years, and the lack of convincing evidence of fraud is exactly the problem with their no-audit-possible systems. Or that the “it’s all theoretical” argument is the same on that software vendors used to use to discredit security vulnerabilities before the full-disclosure movement forced them to admit that their software had problems.

    Posted on July 5, 2006 at 6:12 AMView Comments

    Diebold Doesn't Get It

    This quote sums up nicely why Diebold should not be trusted to secure election machines:

    David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold Election Systems, said the potential risk existed because the company’s technicians had intentionally built the machines in such a way that election officials would be able to update their systems in years ahead.

    “For there to be a problem here, you’re basically assuming a premise where you have some evil and nefarious election officials who would sneak in and introduce a piece of software,” he said. “I don’t believe these evil elections people exist.”

    If you can’t get the threat model right, you can’t hope to secure the system.

    Posted on May 22, 2006 at 3:22 PMView Comments

    Major Vulnerability Found in Diebold Election Machines

    This is a big deal:

    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.”

    This newspaper is withholding some details of the vulnerability at the request of several elections officials and scientists, partly because exploiting it is so simple and the tools for doing so are widely available.


    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.

    The immediate solution to this problem isn’t a patch. What that article refers to is election officials ensuring that they are running the “trusted” build of the software done at the federal labs and stored at the NSRL, just in case someone installed something bad in the meantime.

    This article compares the security of electronic voting machines with the security of electronic slot machines. (My essay on the security of elections and voting machines.)

    EDITED TO ADD (5/11): The redacted report is available.

    Posted on May 11, 2006 at 1:08 PMView Comments

    Leon County, FL Dumps Diebold Voting Machines

    Finnish security expert Harri Hursti demonstrated how easy it is to hack the vote:

    A test election was run in Leon County on Tuesday with a total of eight ballots. Six ballots voted “no” on a ballot question as to whether Diebold voting machines can be hacked or not. Two ballots, cast by Dr. Herbert Thompson and by Harri Hursti voted “yes” indicating a belief that the Diebold machines could be hacked.

    At the beginning of the test election the memory card programmed by Harri Hursti was inserted into an Optical Scan Diebold voting machine. A “zero report” was run indicating zero votes on the memory card. In fact, however, Hursti had pre-loaded the memory card with plus and minus votes.

    The eight ballots were run through the optical scan machine. The standard Diebold-supplied “ender card” was run through as is normal procedure ending the election. A results tape was run from the voting machine.

    Correct results should have been: Yes:2 ; No:6

    However, just as Hursti had planned, the results tape read: Yes:7 ; No:1

    The results were then uploaded from the optical scan voting machine into the GEMS central tabulator, a step cited by Diebold as a protection against memory card hacking. The central tabulator is the “mother ship” that pulls in all votes from voting machines. However, the GEMS central tabulator failed to notice that the voting machines had been hacked.

    The results in the central tabulator read:

    Yes:7 ; No:1

    This is my 2004 essay on the problems with electronic voting machines. The solution is straightforward: machines need voter-verifiable paper audit trails, and all software must be open to public scrutiny. This is not a partisan issue: election irregularities have affected people in both parties.

    Posted on December 14, 2005 at 3:30 PMView Comments

    Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.