ES&S DREs Vulnerable To Viral Vote-Flipping Attack
Exclusive: ES&S Touch-Screen Voting Systems Found Vulnerable To 'Serious' Viral Vote-Flipping Attack; U.S. Elections Assistance Commission Refuses To Issue Warning
- Scientific Report Finds 'Serious Security Vulnerability' Similar to 'Princeton Diebold Virus Hack' in Widely Used iVotronic System, Allowing a Single Person to Change Election Results Across Entire County Without Detection
- Despite GAO Confirmed Mandate to Serve as Info 'Clearinghouse', Embattled EAC Says They Will Take No Action to Alert Elections Officials, Public
-- By Michael Richardson and Brad Friedman
BLOGGED BY Michael Richardson ON 4/16/2007 9:05AM
While revelations surrounding the mysterious 18,000 "undervotes" in the November 2006 U.S. House election between Christine Jennings and Vern Buchanan in Florida's 13th Congressional district continue to inform the nation about the dangers of electronic voting machines, new information has recently come to light exposing a shocking lack of responsible oversight by those entrusted with overseeing the certification of electronic voting systems at the federal level.
An investigation into what may have gone wrong in that election has revealed a serious security vulnerability on some, and possibly all, versions of the iVotronic touch-screen voting system widely used across the country. The iVotronic is a Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) touch-screen voting machine manufactured by Elections Systems & Software, Inc. (ES&S), the nation's largest distributor of such systems.
The vulnerability is said to allow for a single malicious user to introduce a virus into the system which "could potentially steal all the votes in that county, without being detected," according to a noted computer scientist and voting system expert who has reviewed the findings.
And yet, despite their federal mandate to serve as a "clearinghouse" to the nation for such information, a series of email exchanges between an Election Integrity advocate and officials at the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), has revealed that the federal oversight body is refusing to notify states of the alarming security issue.
The recent email conversation shows that even in light of the EAC's review of the warning from the computer scientist who characterized the "security hole" as severe, needing to be "taken very seriously," and among the most serious ever discovered in a voting system, the EAC is unwilling to take action.
Recent reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have taken the EAC to task for a failure to meet their legislated mandate for informing the public and elections officials about such matters. However, a review of the email communications to and from the EAC's Jeannie Layson, show that the federal body is steadfast in their refusal to take action to alert either elections officials or the public about the security risk recently discovered by a team of eight noted computer scientists.
The EAC's current Chairwoman, Executive Director, Director of Voting System Certification and other top officials at both the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) and even the GAO were included in the series of email communications, The BRAD BLOG has learned.
The vulnerability was initially discovered by a panel of scientists convened by the State of Florida to study the possible causes for the FL-13 election debacle. The team's discovery revealed a design issue in the widely used iVotronic system could allow for a viral attack, by a single individual, which could then spread unnoticed throughout the electronic election infrastructure of an entire county.
A similar vulnerability was found in DRE touch-screen system made by Diebold last Summer by a team of computer scientists at Princeton University.
Attempts to seek information about EAC plans to notify other states and local jurisdictions who use the same vulnerable voting systems as the ones in FL-13 have been met with an astounding refusal, troubling denial, buck-passing, and a lack of accountability by the federal commission of Presidential-appointees. The agency has also come under fire in recent weeks for a number of questionably partisan decisions and other failures to perform as mandated by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.
Of late, the EAC has been forced to respond to a great deal of controversy, on a number of different operational matters and policies, as revealed by a series of articles on this site and in mainstream outlets such as the New York Times and USA Today. Several of those matters have drawn Congressional notice, questioning of EAC officials and letters of inquiry. Thus, this latest revelation is likely to add to the rising concern of Congress members as new federal legislation introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), and currently facing mark-up by a Congressional committee, would permanently fund the now-embattled EAC. Funding for the agency was originally mandated by HAVA only through 2005.
The new ES&S iVotronic vulnerability first emerged on February 23, 2007, when the Florida Dept. of State released a report detailing their findings from the investigation into what happened in Sarasota's still-contested Jennings/Buchanan race. That election was ultimately decided by just 369 votes. The state's official findings included a report [PDF] conducted by an eight-member computer science and technology team under the auspices of Florida State University (FSU). The report sought, unsuccessfully, to determine the cause of the unexplained "undervotes" reported by the iVotronic touch-screen voting systems used in Sarasota's portion of the FL-13 race on Election Day and in early voting.
Although the reason thousands of votes turned up missing from those systems remained unknown, the study team did discover a serious security flaw in the iVotronic system that is used in Sarasota and many other jurisdictions across the country (and even the world, as France is set to use the same systems in their upcoming Presidential Election.)
Election integrity watchdog John Gideon, a frequent BRAD BLOG contributer and the Co-Director and Information Manager for VotersUnite.org, says that the security flaw may pertain to "every ES&S iVotronic voting machine used in the US and overseas." A total of eight separate versions of the system --- without and without so-called "voter verified paper audit trail" (VVPAT)" printers --- are currently approved as qualified at the federal level, he explained. Three of those are definitely affected and it is likely that the others are as well.
The details, the dangers, and the denials are all described below...
"It Needs to Be Taken Very Seriously"...
As detailed by information in the FSU report, the ES&S iVotronic is vulnerable to a very dangerous attack by a single person which could result in an election, across an entire county, being flipped without notice.
One computer scientist who has closely reviewed the team's findings warned via email, "The FSU report revealed a serious security vulnerability in the iVotronic: it is vulnerable to viruses that could be introduced by a single outsider and that could spread throughout a county. This means that a single outsider in a county that uses the iVotronic Firmware version 8 could potentially steal all the votes in that county, without being detected."
"In my opinion," the scientist warned, "the severity of this security hole is roughly comparable to that of the Hursti II / Princeton virus--which is to say it needs to be taken very seriously." Though the scientist asked not to be identified publicly, his warning was shared with the EAC and is now posted online in full at VotersUnite.org.
Both the so-called "Hursti II" report and the Princeton discovery, as first reported by The BRAD BLOG, rocked the nation's voting system manufacturers and election officials alike when they revealed extraordinary vulnerabilities in touch-screen electronic voting systems made by Diebold, Inc. last year during, and just prior to, the nation's primary election cycle.
"This is further evidence that it's not just one vendor who has serious security problems; it's a second instance [of] this sort of virus vulnerability," the scientist writes.
"Don't let anyone tell you that if we just 'kick Diebold off the island' all of the security problems will go away."
The scientific warning includes detailed steps on how to mitigate the problem for several different versions of the ES&S iVotronic, all of which are vulnerable to the attack.
Gideon took the warning to heart and forwarded it to the EAC with a request that the important e-voting security issue be shared with other states under the EAC's "clearinghouse" mandate. But the EAC has refused.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires the EAC to act as a national "clearinghouse" for election administration and voting system information. As stated on the EAC website:
The Election Assistance Commission is designed to serve as a national clearinghouse and resource for the compilation of information and review of procedures by….Maintaining a clearinghouse of information on the experiences of State and local governments in implementing the guidelines and in operating voting systems in general.
Despite their mandate, and admission of same, EAC spokeswoman Jeannie Layson replied to Gideon that the iVotronic was qualified by the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) and thus was not the responsibility of the EAC. NASED was the body which oversaw federal testing of systems until the EAC took over the process fully earlier this year.
Not the EAC's Problem...
In the EAC's refusal to take accountability for warning states of the newly discovered danger, along with the buck passing over to NASED, Layson failed to recognize that current EAC Executive Director Tom Wilkey was the chair of the NASED committee at the time they federally qualified several of the virus-prone ES&S voting machines.
Nonetheless, whoever gave federal qualification to the system in the past, it is now clearly the responsibility of the EAC to inform states about the issue now that it has become known, Gideon argues, echoing the sentiments of the GAO in two different reports.
Dumbfounded at the EAC response, Gideon wrote back expressing his dismay to Layson:
My concern is NOT whether the system was NASED qualified or EAC certified. My concern is a problem was found with two versions of a voting system and there are mitigating solutions to these problems. The EAC is supposed to be a "clearinghouse" of information. Ms. Davidson [EAC Chair Donetta Davidson --- also a former member of NASED's Voting Systems Board when it was chaired by Wilkey] pointed out recently that the EAC's middle name is "Assistance". It seems like the EAC is neither acting as a "clearinghouse" nor "assisting" when it ignores reports from prominent computer scientists about a large security issue with a voting system that is being used in many, many jurisdictions around the country.
Layson responded that the "clearinghouse" only applied to studies conducted by the EAC --- like a recent bi-partisan "voter fraud" study and another on "Voter ID". The commission is currently under fire for its partisan rewrite of the former, and the "Voter ID" study which, though commissioned by the EAC as well, was similarly dismissed by the agency after the team of Presidential-appointees were unhappy with its reported findings.
As for warning states and voters of voting machine problems, Layson refused to take responsibility. She maintained, in defense of the EAC, that their new program for voting system certification is just now being put into place, and thus they won't act on problems found in systems approved previously by NASED.
"The EAC['s new] certification program will collect anomaly reports," Layson wrote in an email to Gideon, "which we will then investigate and share with election officials and the public."
Gideon expressed his amazement in his next email response, and attempted again to encourage the EAC to do their HAVA-mandated duty. Responding to the EAC's communications director, he wrote:
I'm amazed that instead of answering the questions you conflate the certification of voting systems with a security vulnerability that is in existence across the country. This issue has nothing to do with the EAC certification program. It has to do with the EAC recognizing that there may be a problem and then taking action to ensure states and local jurisdictions are aware of that problem.
Layson held her "not-our-problem" ground, stating in reply that shortcomings of NASED testing and qualification were, incredibly, not the business of the EAC.
"Again, as we have discussed many times, we did not certify this voting system," Layson responded, deflecting from Gideon's written concerns once again.
"If [the ES&S iVotronic system] successfully completes EAC's certification program in the future, then it would be subject to our rules and conditions, and if a problem occurs we would notify the election community and the public," she reiterated in the follow-up reply.
The GAO Disagrees...
Layson's denial of EAC responsibility in warning the public of the serious Florida findings, is also in sharp contrast with a recent finding by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
In a 2005 report [PDF], requested by Congress on "Federal Efforts to Improve Security and Reliability of Electronic Voting Systems," the GAO was critical of the EAC's failure to inform the public of such concerns about vulnerabilities in voting systems:
The continued absence of a national clearinghouse for voting system problems means that segments of the election community may continue to acquire and operate their systems without benefit of critical information learned by others regarding the security and reliability of those systems.
The 2005 GAO report recommended the EAC, "Improve management support to state and local election officials…for sharing information on the problems and vulnerabilities of voting systems."
A follow-up GAO report [PDF] submitted to Congress last month, stated that the EAC had allocated some $3.5 million --- twenty-five percent of its total budget --- to establish themselves as "a national clearinghouse of election administration information."
However, two years and $3.5 million later the "clearinghouse" is still not operational, as confirmed by the 2007 GAO report:
[W]e have recommended that the EAC develop a process and associated time frames for sharing information on voting system problems and vulnerabilities across the election community….Not yet defined are the mechanisms to collect and disseminate information on problems and vulnerabilities that are identified by voting system vendors and independent groups outside of the national certification process.
Meanwhile, the newly-identified security flaw in ES&S voting machines, all over the country, are like hidden time bombs about which the EAC refuses even to post an advisory on their website. The hidden flaw awaits exploitation in a viral strike --- if such an attack has not already occurred --- and yet the EAC has expressed a complete unwillingness to even alert state and local officials.
The future of the EAC itself is now very much in play. Federal legislation --- the "Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act" (HR811), as proposed by Rep. Rush Holt, will for the first time remove HAVA's previous 2005 funding "sunset". The act would make the EAC a permanently funded federal body under the control of the White House.
And yet, the EAC's "clearinghouse" is beginning to smell like an outhouse.
Gideon, who has spent years trying to effect positive change at the EAC in attempts to hold them accountable for their mandate as the sole federal oversight body for voting systems, told The BRAD BLOG recently in frustration, "They just don't care."