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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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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