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Voting Machine Systems New & Old Contain 'Design' Flaws

DEF CON Voting Village organizers presented a final report on their findings at the Capitol.

Hackers at this year's DEF CON Voting Village discovered new security flaws in previously vetted older voting machine systems, as well as security flaws in newer voting systems.

"Every single system was hacked on day one except for one because it arrived an hour before closing," says Harri Hursti, one of the founders and organizers of the Voting Village, which had more than 100 systems on hand for hackers to inspect. "But it was hacked the first hour of the second day."

Hursti is the first to admit that hacking voting systems isn't really the main point of the Voting Village event, whose organizers presented a final report at an event on Capitol Hill today. He says it's well-known that all voting machines can be hacked. The goal of the DEF CON event is about dealing with the risk of threat actors compromising them.

The new flaws hackers are finding in these boxes aren't all typical security vulnerabilities. "These new things are not bugs. They are backdoors and hidden features [that] have been painstakingly carved into the DNA of the machine so it's not easily discovered. They are features made by the vendors on purpose," says Hursti, founder of Nordic Innovation Labs and a renowned election security expert.

Hursti says these design flaws of sorts — hardwired passwords, hidden register keys, and backdoors — are also mostly unknown by election officials who run the machines. Security features are disabled by default in much of the equipment.

Such maintenance "backdoors" left in by vendors historically had been a common but often hidden feature, or oversight, in all types of Internet of Things devices.

The Voting Village's report, released today at the Congressional event hosted by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), and with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Congressman John Katko (D-N.Y.), details specific security flaws discovered in a snapshot of voting machine equipment in the Village — everything from e-poll books to newer-generation ballot-marking devices. All of the equipment in the Voting Village is currently still in use.

The report reiterates the Voting Village organizers' recommendations for securing US elections: mandatory risk-limiting audits, hand-marked paper ballots, and security standards for all equipment and systems used in election administration.

The organizers also called out the need for better training election officials in cybersecurity threats. "Election officials need more training and better access to parties who can help them to navigate the consequences of technological choices around them," the report said. "Election officials also need help to train their own staff to be more security minded and to gain 'muscle memory' for instincts to protect day-to-day operations, both during election cycles and between them."

The Village also hosted a meetup, Unhack the Ballot, where election officials from California, Iowa, and Michigan connected with volunteer security experts. The goal was to provide them gratis security help, and several plan to continue to consult with the experts regularly, organizers say.

Key Hacks
Among the findings highlighted in the Voting Village report were flaws in ES&S's ExpressPoll Tablet Electronic Pollbook, where hackers were able to open the box, connect to an external USB port, and then print out the voter permission slip. They also found, among other weaknesses, that the device's SD card storing encrypted voter data left its key stored in plaintext in an XML file, so an attacker could use that information to read the encrypted data.

In addition, there were no set BIOS passwords on the system, so hackers could access system settings, and the device boots by default from a USB — no password required. A maintenance password of "ESS" was stored in plaintext, and the Secureboot feature for preventing malicious code used by the commercial hardware platform was not activated or turned on.

There were other blatant security no-no's: "The e-poll book operating system stack lacked any attempt to perform even the most rudimentary platform hardening. In fact, none of the bloatware that would come with a standard Toshiba tablet was removed. Apps for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon were present in the e-poll book," the report said.

Hackers were able to get root access on another system, the ES&S AutoMARK Ballot-Marking Device, by striking the Windows key. The ballot-marking device lets voters cast their vote on a screen and then print out the ballot, which is then either scanned into an OCR or hand-counted. Hackers found that the device, which runs on Windows CE Embedded Operating System 5.0, had not been updated since late 2007, and had been last used in a special election in the City of Williamsburg, Va., in 2018. Among other weaknesses, the admin password was found in plaintext in the configuration file.

Another voting system highlighted in the report is the Dominion Imagecast Precinct, a combination optical paper-ballot scanner and ballot-marking device designed for voters with disabilities. In addition to open physical ports that were easily accessible by hackers, they found the system is based on Busybox Linux 1.7.4, known to contain 20 serious vulnerabilities. One vuln can cause a denial-of-service attack.

Next year looms large as a US presidential election year, and also because it marks four years since Russia's election-meddling and hacking activities during that US election were first revealed. Organizers of the DEF CON Voting Village already are mapping out plans for the next event in August 2020.

"One of the things we're planning to do is start part of the activities in February or March [2020]," Hursti says. That way, hackers can do a fair amount of their preparation for the event in advance, before they get their hands on the equipment, he says.

In addition, they plan to include a forensics area in the Village where forensics experts can, for example, work on artifacts, firmware, and memory cards from the voting systems.

Meanwhile, Village organizers say they also still hold out hope that election vendors will willingly participate in the event.

But even with all of the groundbreaking work and awareness raised by the Voting Village the past three years, most security experts say US election systems are not much more secure than they were in 2016. "We're slightly better off," says one source close to the event who requested anonymity. "Virginia got rid of its remotely hackable voting system, Georgia got rid of its" insecure voting systems, and the move toward more paper ballot backups is encouraging. 

Adds the source: "I don't see how we're going to do anything to stop any nation-state attacks."

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "Why Clouds Keep Leaking Data"



Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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