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Systems Seminar - CSE

The Risks of Electronic Voting

Dan Wallach
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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.
Dan Wallach is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Sponsored by

Rice University