Internet voting system may not be reliable, researchers say
Next week’s South Carolina primary will be the SERVE system’s first test, and security flaws are feared
28 January 2004
By Sarah Yang, Public Affairs
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Feb. 5, two weeks after computer experts released the report described below about security flaws in a federally funded Internet voting system, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it has canceled the planned rollout of the $22 million project for the 2004 elections.
A federally funded online absentee-voting system scheduled to debut in less than a week has security vulnerabilities that could jeopardize voter privacy and allow votes to be altered, according to a report prepared by four prominent researchers invited to analyze the system. The cyber-security experts say the risks associated with Internet voting cannot be eliminated and urge that the system be shut down.
The report’s authors are computer scientists David Wagner, Avi Rubin, and David Jefferson from UC Berkeley, The Johns Hopkins University, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, respectively, and Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and leading technology-policy consultant. They are members of the Security Peer Review Group, an advisory group formed by the Federal Voting Assistance Program to evaluate the system.
Administrators of this program, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, were charged with finding an easier way for U.S. military personnel and overseas civilians to vote in their home districts. Currently, these voters must rely on absentee paper ballots. But obtaining and returning a paper ballot from a distant location can be a frustrating process that sometimes depends on slow or unreliable foreign postal services.
As an alternative, the federal program funded the creation of an Internet-based voting system called the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). The system is slated to be used in 50 counties in seven states during this year’s primary and general elections, handling up to 100,000 votes, with the first tryout just days away in South Carolina’s presidential primary. The goal is to eventually provide voting services to all eligible overseas citizens, plus military personnel and their dependents — a population estimated at 6 million.
While acknowledging the difficulties facing such absentee voters, the authors of the security analysis conclude that Internet voting presents far too many opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere with fair and accurate voting, potentially in ways impossible to detect. Such tampering could alter election results, particularly in close contests.
“Because the danger of successful large-scale attacks is so great, we reluctantly recommend shutting down the development of SERVE and not attempting anything like it in the future until both the Internet and the world’s home-computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned, or some other unforeseen security breakthroughs appear,” the report states.
The authors of the report say that there is no way to plug the security vulnerabilities inherent in the SERVE online-voting design.
“The flaws are unsolvable because they are fundamental to the architecture of the Internet,” says Berkeley’s Wagner, an assistant professor of computer science.. “Using a voting system based upon the Internet poses a serious and unacceptable risk of election fraud. It is simply not secure enough for something as serious as the election of a government official.”
The researchers also believe that if no mishaps occur or are detected during this year’s trial runs with the system, federal or state governments might swiftly expand its use.
“The danger is that this system will work fine in a low-stakes setting like these first trial runs,” says Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins. “That will likely be used as an argument for expanding the system for even wider use. But that’s like saying you don’t ever need to wear a seat belt because you drove to work this morning without crashing the car.”
A host of vulnerabilities
The Internet-voting plan, along with the growing use of touchscreen equipment not linked to the Internet, is part of a nationwide move toward greater use of computers, provoked in part by the problems associated with paper ballots during the 2000 presidential election. But the authors of the SERVE analysis conclude that opportunities for tampering are being overlooked in the rush to embrace new election technology.
“The SERVE system has all of the problems that electronic- touchscreen voting systems have: secret software, no protection against insider fraud, and lack of voter verifiability,” says Lawrence Livermore’s Jefferson. “But it also has a host of additional security vulnerabilities associated with the PC and the Internet, including denial-of-service attacks, automated vote buying and selling, spoofing attacks, and virus attacks.”
As SERVE is currently implemented, certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces, the Merchant Marines, the Public Health Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as U.S. citizens living abroad, are eligible to vote using the system. Such voters, using a Windows-based computer connected to the Internet, can go to the SERVE website and cast their ballots.
After studying the prototype system, however, the four researchers said it would be too easy for a hacker, located anywhere in the world, to disrupt an election or influence its outcome by employing any of several common types of cyber-attacks:
• a denial-of-service attack, which would delay or prevent a voter from casting a ballot through the SERVE website;
• a “Man in the Middle” or “spoofing” attack, in which a hacker would insert a phony webpage between the voter and the authentic server to prevent the vote from being counted or to alter the voter’s choice. What is particularly problematic, the authors say, is that victims of “spoofing” may never know that their votes were not counted;
• use of a virus or other malicious software on the voter’s computer to allow an outside party to monitor or modify that voter’s choices. The malicious software might then erase itself and never be detected.
“Voting in a national election will be conducted using proprietary software, insecure clients, and an insecure network,” says Simons, a former IBM Research Staff Member and a past president of the Association for Computing Machinery. “Congress and the Department of Defense should understand that providing soldiers with an insecure system on which to vote is not doing them any favors.”
The full security analysis of the SERVE system may be viewed online at www.servesecurityreport.org/.
For detailed information about the SERVE system, including a list of participating states and counties, go to www.serveusa.gov/public/aca.aspx/.