All Your Votes Are Belong to Us

by on May 11, 2006 · 4 comments

Ed Felten links to an alarming report about flaws in Diebold’s voting machines:

The attacks described in Hursti’s report would allow anyone who had physical access to a voting machine for a few minutes to install malicious software code on that machine, using simple, widely available tools. The malicious code, once installed, would control all of the functions of the voting machine, including the counting of votes.

Hursti’s findings suggest the possibililty of other attacks, not described in his report, that are even more worrisome.

In addition, compromised machines would be very difficult to detect or to repair. The normal procedure for installing software updates on the machines could not be trusted, because malicious code could cause that procedure to report success, without actually installing any updates. A technician who tried to update the machine’s software would be misled into thinking the update had been installed, when it actually had not.

On election day, malicious software could refuse to function, or it could silently miscount votes.

As I’ve written before, I’m not convinced there are any good reasons to use computerized voting machines. It seems to be driven by a simplistic notion that computerized stuff is always better than non-computerized stuff. But as Felten says, these sorts of vulnerabilities are inevitable on a general-purpose computer.

The most important features for a voting machine are reliability and transparency. In general, the simpler a machine is, the easier it is to verify that it’s working correctly and the more likely ordinary voters are to trust it. Optical-scan voting machines appear to be plenty reliable, and they have the advantage that if anything goes wrong, there’s always an option for a manual recount.

When it comes to voting, we should be very, very hesitant to fix what’s not broken.

  • Steve R.

    I posted on Ed Felton website that I do not really believe that the problem is fundamentally technological. Diebold has been in deep doo-doo for a long long time concerning the lack of quality of its voting machines. While I do not know anything about Diebold as a company, the problems with assembling a quality voting system appears to be structural ala the Dilbert comic strip. The sales staff sold vaporware, the software engineers were clueless, and management was preoccupied with enjoying their performance awards rather than managing the company.

    Exposing the security flaws is a good thing, but fixing the flaws will not magically create a quality voting system. Creating a quality voting system will require either “fixing” the company or selecting another company that can do the job.

    General purpose computers, I believe, can do the job and all voting systems are susceptible to fraud. The hardware, in this case, is an innocent “victim”.

  • Steve R.

    I posted on Ed Felton website that I do not really believe that the problem is fundamentally technological. Diebold has been in deep doo-doo for a long long time concerning the lack of quality of its voting machines. While I do not know anything about Diebold as a company, the problems with assembling a quality voting system appears to be structural ala the Dilbert comic strip. The sales staff sold vaporware, the software engineers were clueless, and management was preoccupied with enjoying their performance awards rather than managing the company.

    Exposing the security flaws is a good thing, but fixing the flaws will not magically create a quality voting system. Creating a quality voting system will require either “fixing” the company or selecting another company that can do the job.

    General purpose computers, I believe, can do the job and all voting systems are susceptible to fraud. The hardware, in this case, is an innocent “victim”.

  • enigma_foundry

    There is a fundamental problem with any electronic voting system, and that is the loss of transparency. with the old systems, recounts could be witnessed and presided over by lay people. Now, with computerized voting, the election observers can really only be computer experts.

    In a close election, there could be real sense of dis-enfranchisement.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to see that this could easily lead to rioting etc, etc…

    Of course, that may be what the proponeents of electronic voting are hoping for, the better to justify repression…

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    There is a fundamental problem with any electronic voting system, and that is the loss of transparency. with the old systems, recounts could be witnessed and presided over by lay people. Now, with computerized voting, the election observers can really only be computer experts.

    In a close election, there could be real sense of dis-enfranchisement.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to see that this could easily lead to rioting etc, etc…

    Of course, that may be what the proponeents of electronic voting are hoping for, the better to justify repression…

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