Recent election problems have sparked great interest in managing the election process through the use of electronic voting systems.While computer scientists, for the most part, have been warning of the perils of such action, vendors have forged ahead with their products, claiming increased security and reliability. Many municipalities have adopted electronic systems, and the number of deployed systems is rising. For these new computerized voting systems, neither source code nor the results of any third-party certification analyses have been available for the general population to study, because vendors claim that secrecy is a necessary requirement to keep their systems secure. Recently, however, the source code purporting to be the software for a voting system from a major manufacturer appeared on the Internet. This manufacturer's systems were used in Georgia's state-wide elections in 2002, and the company recently announced that the state of Maryland awarded them an order for about $55 million to deliver touch-screen voting systems.
This unique opportunity for independent scientific analysis of voting system source code demonstrates the fallacy of the closed-source argument for such a critical system. Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We highlight several issues including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software development processes. For example, common voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal. Furthermore, we show that even the most serious of our outsider attacks could have been discovered without the source code. In the face of such attacks, the usual worries about insider threats are not the only concerns; outsiders can do the damage. That said, we demonstrate that the insider threat is also quite considerable. We conclude that, as a society, we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk.
Dan Wallach is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His research involves computer security and the issues of building secure and robust software systems for the Internet. Wallach's pioneering efforts led to the development and standardization of the "stack inspection" security model, now used by Sun, Microsoft, and many other systems. Wallach has also studied security issues that occur in distributed and peer-to-peer systems, focusing on techniques that can increase the robustness of these systems against malicious nodes that do not necessarily follow protocols correctly.