Electronic voting machines still not secure

With a major U.S. election imminent, security experts are sounding alarms about the lack of attention paid to fixing electronic voting technology in use in North America.

Flawed voting machines developed by Diebold Inc., a North Canton, OH-based manufacturer, created uproars in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections, raising many questions about the integrity of their results.

Angry hordes of security experts have documented the lack of audit trails and other major problems. “I would characterize Diebold’s vulnerabilities as obvious, egregious and completely avoidable,” says Ed Adams, CEO of Security Innovation, a Wilmington, MA-based software evaluation lab that’s reviewed various voting systems.

Gambling machines in Las Vegas have better controls, says Eric Lazarus, author of The Machinery of Democracy. “Every one of those machines is randomly grabbed every year, taken apart and checked for problems. There are no similar rules for voting machines.”

About 150 million Americans will be voting on optical scan voting machines in the upcoming November presidential elections, says Aleks Essex, PhD student in information security at the University of Ottawa and team member of Scantegrity, a secure voting system based on cryptographic principles that’s being developed by several collaborating universities.

Although some patches and fixes have been made, these are mostly band-aid measures that don’t address many fundamental problems, he says.

“Will we see yet another debacle in the next election? That’s the wrong question because you won’t necessarily know if something goes wrong. In the 2000 election, Al Gore got negative 16,000 votes in Florida, which alerted people because it was an obvious error. But if it’s a subtle error, no one may pick up on the problem.”

The Diebold debacles

Some states have taken action. In 2006, Ohio mounted a lawsuit to recoup the $83 million it invested in Diebold machines, and in 2007, California decertified its machines for use in elections. To distance itself, Diebold changed the name of the division to Premier Election Solutions Inc. last year after failing to find a buyer for its voting machine business. But the company still has about 25,000 optical scan units and 126,000 touch-screen units in use around the U.S.

There are also some in Canada, says Essex. “The city of Ottawa uses Diebold optical units, which is the same equipment Americans are concerned about.”

But despite the problems, there’s no clamour for next-generation voting technology with robust security. County officials are ultimately the purchasers of voting technology in the U.S. but they aren’t generally tech-savvy, says Lazarus. Ease of use has been the primary selling point, as it’s hard enough to get people to vote at all without adding security burdens, adds Adams.

Diebold machines do have advanced accessibility features that initially made them attractive to elections officials, as there are many complicated rules around voting in the U.S. For example, the use of an assistant in voting is forbidden. In Canada, people who have visual or other impairments can sign a release allowing someone to vote on their behalf. Not so in the U.S., where voting machines must accommodate a wide range of disabilities.

“Companies that have successfully sold to counties have designed systems to solve that problem – but it’s been done at the sacrifice of security and integrity,” says Adams. “They built what sells.”

The wheels of government are turning very slowly to change this scenario. The Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), a U.S. agency that provides voluntary election guidelines, solicited proposals this year for threat-risk analysis of various voting technologies, says Adams.

“The EAC is trying to take a hard look at all this. But remember the hanging chads in Florida back in 2000? And here we are, with a major election imminent.”

The EAC’s focus is mostly on improving the certification process, not fundamental designs, says Lazarus. “There’s something of a crackdown underway, but it’s not going in the direction of using clever mathematics to make election results provable. It’s more focused on the procedures for getting federal certification of voting machines.”

But there’s no federal mandate that a company must certify its systems are technologically secure and tamper-proof, adds Adams.

Various academic research projects are underway to develop more secure approaches, but technology companies aren’t investing in R&D and cash-strapped counties are making do with what they have, says Essex. “There’s no capitalistic motivation for companies or compelling reasons for counties to adopt new technology.”

Scantegrity soldiers on

The Scantegrity team is working to improve its system’s accessibility features and gain certification for use in the U.S., says Essex. “We’re developing a secure system that can ride on top of optical scanning voting machines like Diebold.”

The team is in final discussions with an American city that’s interested in using their new system, and is also looking into courting Canadian cities, as municipal elections have multiple contests for various positions much like the U.S., where citizens vote for members of the Senate, House of Representatives, judges, school boards and so on in presidential elections.

Scantegrity has been showcased at a number of conferences in the U.S., including the Future of Voting exhibition held this year on Capitol Hill in Washington.

“A huge selling point is Scantegrity’s security,” says Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the not-for-profit think-tank that sponsored the event.

“There’s never been a system before that allows you to verify that your vote was actually counted,” he says. “But they need to continue to improve its accessibility, usability and cost. If the Scantegrity team can get it to market, this will be a huge change in how we do elections.”

While lack of demand may be inhibiting development of next-generation voting technology today, Essex believes governments will be increasingly pressured by their constituents to make voting and citizen participation more convenient as Internet connections become universal over the next decade. “Just like hydrogen cars, there’s recognition that electronic voting is something we need to develop for the future.”

Related content:

Voting groups release guidelines for e-voting checks

Opinion: Let’s impeach e-voting

Canadian voting machine enters American political machine

Interview with Aviel Rubin, e-voting activist and professor of computer science

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