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Voting System Hacks Prompt Push for Paper-Based Voting

DEF CON's Voting Machine Hacker Village hacks confirmed security experts' worst fears.

Calls for paper-based voting to replace computer-based systems at the DEF CON hacker conference have intensified in the wake of a wave of voting machine hacks earlier this month.

This retro method of paper and pen as a more secure and verifiable way to protect US elections from future tampering or hacking may seem counterintuitive in today's app-based and interconnected era. But after researchers at DEF CON hacked voting machines within 90 minutes of getting their first look at them, many security and policy experts doubled down on their recommendations to eliminate software-based voting machines in favor of either pure paper ballots or a paper trail-based system with optical character readers (OCRs).

Organizers of the DEF CON Voting Machine Hacker Village are still gathering and confirming the final results of the voting system equipment that fell to hackers there, two of which went down within the first hour and a half of the two-day special event at the conference. The village had five different types of voting systems used in US elections, all of which had been decommissioned. And hackers were able to crack all of them.

"It's undeniably true that systems that depend on software running in a touchscreen voting machine can't be relied on," Voting Village organizer Matt Blaze said in a Facebook Live feed hosted by US congressmen Will Hurd (R-Texas) and James Langevin (D-R.I.), in the aftermath of the DEF CON hacks. "We need to switch to systems that don't depend on software," said Blaze, a renowned security expert who is a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Blaze recommends OCR-based systems using paper ballots that provide an audit trail for counting and confirming votes.

Pure paper ballots, sans OCR, are the preference of computer scientists with Verified Voting, a nonprofit that advocates legislation and regulation for verifiable and accurate elections. "We know that computers can be hacked. What surprised me is that they did it so quickly" with the voting machines at DEF CON, says computer scientist Barbara Simons, president of Verified Voting.

"One of the things that 2016 made quite clear is that we have very vulnerable voting systems and we don't do a good job" of protecting them, Simons says. "So we exposed ourselves, and we haven't taken the necessary steps to protect ourselves."

Simons says the easy solution to protecting the voting system and its integrity in the US is to go to paper ballots. "You can't hack paper," she says. While many paper ballot voting systems are counted by optical scanners, those software-based systems can be hacked as well, she notes. "It's fine to use [OCRs], but you need to check them" by correlating their data with the paper ballots, she says.

Verified Voting says the machines should be "immediately replaced" with ones that require that the voter mark a paper ballot, and that post-election ballots are audited in all locations.

A few states already use some form of paper balloting, Simons notes, including New Hampshire, which manually counts ballots, and California, which offers a "broken-arrow" ballot, where voters with a pen connect the arrow to their vote.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent his constituents an email after DEF CON calling for them "to spread the word" about how Oregon's vote-by-mail model should be adopted around the nation.

"Last week attendees at the DEF CON hacker convention in Las Vegas proved that it is possible to hack into our election computer systems in a matter of minutes," he wrote in the email message. "That's an enormous flaw in our democracy's technology — but the good news is that we can solve the problem. Oregon-style vote by mail is a solution that will increase voting security and accessibility."

Verified Voting's Simons says some of the safer existing voting systems allow voters to use touchscreen systems to print out their paper ballots but don't electronically store the voting data.

One way to force localities to update their voting systems to more secure paper-trail systems is for the US to establish a certification process for voting systems, says Paul Vixie, founder and CEO of Farsight Security.

"There isn't a process for de-certification" of voting machine systems, however, Vixie notes. "There ought to be recertifications so we don't have Windows XP or other known buggy software" running in these systems, he says. One of the voting machines in the Voting Village at DEF CON was XP-based, which alarmed security experts.

If not paper, systems should be based on open-source code, Vixie says. "If we're going to use a digital system at all and if it isn't going to be paper, that digital system is going to have to be open-source software," Vixie says. "Then everybody has a chance to look at what it does and how it does it in time to affect the certification."

That means examining the actual source code, he says, and rooting out vulnerabilities during the certification process.

But localities are limited by funding constraints. Money is the main obstacle for localities to replace vulnerable voting systems, Verified Voting's Simons says. "A lot of these machines are really, really old ... with [software] from the early 2000s or even earlier," she says. "In some cases, they aren't being maintained."

She says many local election officials want to update their systems, but they just don't have the funds.

Meanwhile, the worse news is that realistically, the upcoming 2017 November election as well as those in 2018 and 2020 aren't likely to see a massive swap-out of vulnerable voting machines, despite the eye-opening hacks from DEF CON. It will take time, experts say.

'Serious National Security Issue'

The backdrop here, of course, is concern over Russia, another nation-state, or even a rival political faction hacking or tampering with upcoming elections after 2016's revelations of Russia's meddling in the US election.

Douglas Lute, former US ambassador to NATO under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, called last year's election-tampering by Russia the most "serious a threat to our democracy as I have seen in over 40 years."

Lute, who spoke to DEF CON's Voting Village attendees via Skype, considers the attacks even more serious than a physical attack because they can shake citizens' confidence in the voting process itself. "If we were to lose confidence of the security of our voting process — this most fundamental link between an American citizen and his or her government — if we lose confidence in that, the damage could be much more severe," he said. "In short, in my view as a national security guy, this is a serious national security issue."

Russia likely isn't the only nation-state or other actor that can pull this off, either. Lute and other security experts point to Iran, North Korea, the Islamic State, and even rival political parties as potential attackers.

"These will be lucrative targets to any cyber opponent. Time is actually quite short to repair our vulnerabilities," Lute said. "We just have to have a sense of urgency" on a national scale, he added.

DEF CON founder Jeff Moss, aka The Dark Tangent, and his team purchased the used voting machines on eBay for the Voting Village. "The genie is out of the bottle now," he says of the voting machine vulnerabilities. "We now know it's possible, whether it's a nation-state" or other actor, to hack them.

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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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User Rank: Apprentice
8/23/2017 | 5:22:33 PM
Re: Fodder
You might have to do some research to check my claims, but the voting system has been hacked many times in history, not just in America but worldwide. There's a famous LBJ quote, "If we count the votes, we'll win the election."

I don't know when actual physical voter fraud ended (that's something historians know). Dead voters don't vote until the vote counters count them, and they vote to make the totals add up. It's a pretty sophisticated system. But it only works if there aren't auditors, or maybe even observors, to keep the vote counters honest. Our system works because voters believe that vote counting fraud is small enough that it "usually" doesn't make a difference (that is, it's always somewhere else, and only a few places, and only a few votes in the House of Representatives, and "we" outvote "them").

So to protect the system, our only defense is to create an audit trail and have observors of the entire process. That means that we have to admit that the system is hackable and make it robust so that we can re-count the votes as needed (just as in the paper ballot days); allow for legal challenges as to which ballots were legally and/or legitimately cast (just as in the paper ballot days); allow for spoiled ballots (ditto); allow for potentially lost and/or rediscovered ballots (but at least not in the trunk of a car [we hope -- or is a lost and rediscovered thumb drive possible? -- politics guarantees full employment for lawyers]); and who knows what else? An armed citizen insurrection to guarantee public counting of ballots (Athens, TN, 1946)?
User Rank: Ninja
8/10/2017 | 5:05:59 PM
Paper-Based Voting
Paper based voting is not a solution or really even a preventative measure / mitigation technique to the issue at hand. Are we forgetting that Hacks are not limited to realm of the digital world? 

Ballots boxes can be physically compromised, votes can be forged, altered, and miscounted.
User Rank: Ninja
8/9/2017 | 8:31:17 AM
On Georgia
When the subject has come up in Georgia, the IT staffers in this state say the voting protocol is isolated from the internet.  For wht it is worth whether you believe or not, but generally a really good idea.
User Rank: Strategist
8/8/2017 | 4:18:32 PM
Re: Fodder
Remediation is the standard answer to most computer system issues, but with electronic voting machines, remediation must take a different form than tinkering with the hardware or code.

The paper audit trail, most experts on machine voting agree, is the safest, most reliable system available for maintaining integrity in our voting system. Two-factor authentication commonly uses different forms to establish authenticity, and paper offers a form sufficently different to frustrate both local and remote hacks.

Clearly, the convenience and speed of electronic voting tabulation is forfeited when there is no audit system offering reliability and authentication of results. For now, at least, paper audit remains the only answer commonly and readily available. 
User Rank: Apprentice
8/8/2017 | 9:04:11 AM
Why is this even a surprise to people, especially those of us in security? We all know that anything can be breached with unlimited physical access in a controlled environment. So do we call for companies world wide to shut down their computer networks and go back to paper and pen? No! Try hacking the voting machines remotely, or during election day with a ton of election officials around, or how about trying to breach physical security where the machines are stored and see if you can get anywhere. No, you take the absolute easiest way to hack something and then try to make a big deal out of it. Unreal.

When we do assessments for clients, and if we find that we can extract data from their servers, we do not recommend them going back to paper and pen. We give serious recommendations for remediation. Where are the recommendations for remediation here? The so called professionals there gave one recommendation, to go back to paper ballots. WOW!!! Just WOW!!! 

So with that advice, why don't we get rid of computers all together and go back to paper and pen? Why don't we give back our debit cards and go back to an all cash society? Why don't we get rid of computers from cars, since they can be hacked, and go back to cars with no computers? Why don't we give up our mobile phones and go back to land lines?

We, security professionals, are supposed to be innovative. 
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