Questions linger in US on high-tech voting

Mar 11, 2012 by Rob Lever

A series of problems with electronic voting machines has raised fresh questions about election technology as newer computerized systems gain ground for the 2012 US election.

As many as 25 percent of Americans are expected to use paperless electronic in the upcoming November elections, according to the Verified Voting Foundation, but confidence has been eroded by incidents showing vulnerabilities.

The foundation, which seeks more reliable election systems, contends that voting machines in 11 states are all-electronic, with no paper systems for recounts, and that many other jurisdictions have some of these systems in place.

Last year, Microsoft Research published a paper describing vulnerabilities to what had been described as "fully verifiable" direct recording electronic (DRE) systems in which a hacker can "undetectably alter large numbers of votes."

Separately, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory described a way to tamper with certain electronic voting machines by inserting a $10 component along with a $15 device to alter vote results.

Pamela Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation said these incidents highlight the fact "that you can have insider challenges as well as outsider hacks. It points out that you have to be able to check the system."

Election security and technology has been an issue in the United States since the 2000 president election marred by "hanging chads" in Florida that muddled the result.

US laws enacted since then encourage the use of new technology including touch-screen ballots. But some critics say these can be vulnerable to hackers and that some lack a "paper trail" which could allow a recount in case of machine failure.

"We still have a number of states which do not have what I call resilient recountable systems," Smith said.

"If they do have problems they may not be able to recover from them. So we would like states to move to recoverable systems where they could do a recount if there were a problem."

Last September, researchers led by Roger Johnston at the Argonne lab were able to change votes on the a ballot machine using about $25 worth of equipment, by inserting a device to manipulate touch screens by remote control

"We believe these 'man in the middle attacks' are possible on a wide variety of voting machines," with little technical expertise, Johnston said.

In October, Microsoft Research released a paper describing a so-called "trash attack" which it said could be "effective against the majority of fully verifiable election systems."

It is known as a trash attack because it would allow a corrupt elections worker, for example, see a voter dumping a receipt on the way out from a polling station, and then modify the vote without detection, and with no way to verify the original vote. Microsoft also offered a technical fix for this weakness.

Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer scientist, said little has changed since reports about vulnerabilities in voting machines began around 2007.

"Anybody trying to compromise them could have read all the public reports in 2007 and now, five years later, they've had lots of time to engineer attacks," Wallach said.

Wallach said it is not clear if any elections have been compromised by computer intrusions: "We don't know. If they were doing it and were doing it skillfully, we'd never know."

Other countries have faced similar issues. The Netherlands scrapped electronic voting several years ago after a high-profile hacking incident. Ireland also abandoned the use of Dutch-made voting machines. Controversies have arisen over security of voting machines in India and several other countries.

Richard Soudriette, president of the Colorado-based Center for Diplomacy and Democracy, said it was "unfortunate that electronic voting systems have taken on such a negative connotation."

"I think it is entirely possible to build trustworthy and verifiable systems. But there has been so much negative publicity about , I don't think it's going to make a revival."

Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and faculty member of the Voting Technology Project of MIT and the California Institute of Technology, said he is "more comfortable than most people" with the new systems, while acknowledging that any system can be vulnerable.

"I trust my computer scientist friends when they tell me all the ways you can hack into the machines," he said. "But I've yet to see an election hacked."

Stewart that if the 2012 presidential race is a runaway, few will notice any flaws in vote technology. But if it is a tight race, "I can easily imagine in a state like Ohio or Florida or Pennsylvania, if there are one or two counties where things go wrong, that could raise this issue again."

Explore further: Engineers tap gaming technology to improve design

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

As e-voting comes of age, security fears mount

Oct 24, 2010

New technologies allowing voters to cast ballots via the Internet or other electronic means are catching on in the United States and elsewhere, even as fears mount about security of the systems.

Is smartphone technology the future of US elections?

Sep 12, 2011

With more and more Americans upgrading to smartphones, and as smartphone capabilities continue to improve, even the U.S. government is considering innovative ways to harness this advancing technology. Human factors/ergonomics ...

Protect your vote -- avoid election machine errors

Nov 03, 2008

Of all the conceivable problems that could lead to a miscount Election Day, there's one possibility that voters can do something about – avoid making election machine-related errors, says a University of ...

Recommended for you

Google searches hold key to future market crashes

8 hours ago

A team of researchers from Warwick Business School and Boston University have developed a method to automatically identify topics that people search for on Google before subsequent stock market falls.

Lenovo's smart glasses prototype has battery at neck

10 hours ago

China's PC giant Lenovo last week offered a peek at its Google Glass-competing smart glass prototype, further details of which are to be announced in October. Lenovo's glasses prototype is not an extreme ...

Amazon launches 3D printing store

13 hours ago

Amazon announced Monday the launch of an online store for 3D printed items to allow consumers to customize and personalize items like earrings, pendants, dolls and other objects.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2012
"I trust my computer scientist friends when they tell me all the ways you can hack into the machines," he said. "But I've yet to see an election hacked."

Flat out liar. That's the problem in the USA. People feel free to outright lie and play stupid even at, of all places MIT, without fear of retribution.
freethinking
1 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2012
I have very little doubt that the 2012 elections will be the most corrupt election ever. Votes for the democrats will appear from nowhere and keep appearing, dead people will vote, just like they do in Washington State.