E-voting promises US election tragicomedy

Brace yourselves


New DRE (Direct Recording Electronic) voting machines came under fire in Washington this week, with expert witnesses giving contradictory testimony to the US Election Assistance Commission on the perennially entertaining and confusing topic of touch screen balloting.

The Commission is a tiny outfit charged with the very great task of recommending standards for election gear, protocols and procedures throughout myriad precincts, and encompassing a smorgasbord of balloting kit, of which five or six different models of touch screen system comprise but a fraction.

Add to this that the Chairman, DeForest Soaries, expressed delight at news that college students are volunteering as election workers, because, as he observed, "young people understand technology", and you can see that a monumental November cock-up is brewing.

The good

Election officials, by and large, and with the notable exception of California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, are much enamored of touch-screen, or DRE, systems, for several quite respectable reasons.

For one thing, they prevent overvoting: it's simply impossible to choose both 'yes' and 'no' to a referendum question, or to vote for a candidate and his opponent by mistake, a problem that surfaces regularly with paper and punch-card ballots.

They also reduce undervoting, as a summary screen is produced before a ballot is finally cast so that voters have a chance to observe that they've neglected to choose a president, say. Undervoting often occurs because one can't endure the sight of either candidate and can't, in good conscience, vote for either one; but more often than not, a confused voter has simply overlooked one or two races. Touch screens help ensure that a citizen has deliberately neglected to vote in a particular race or on a particular referendum question.

And they provide better accessibility for handicapped voters, reducing their dependence on poll workers, and give a much clearer indication of voter intent. It's either yes, no, or nothing; there are no hanging chads, pregnant chads, or stray marks and crossing out of previous choices. A DRE machine may reflect a voter's choice inaccurately, certainly. One may well vote for the wrong candidate, but one will do so clearly. Election officials love this.

The bad

Election fraud is a tradition stretching back to the dawn of civilization. There is no system, whether paper, mechanical, optical, or computerized, that can prevent it. We are clever little apes, and we will muck about with things. However, there are ways of making it evident that fraud or a malfuncion has occurred, and in this respect, touch screen devices are sorely lacking.

It's not so much that they're easier to scam than other systems; they're not. In fact, they're more difficult to scam than most. It's just that, as they're currently designed, it's difficult to detect tampering.

A box full of paper ballots can be sealed. If the seal is broken before the votes are tallied, it's painfully obvious that something has gone wrong. On the other hand, it takes some skill and planning to attack a DRE system; you don't just open a hatch and shove in a fistful of bogus ballots. But there are numerous points vulnerability; and while it may be more of a challenge to mount an attack, it's considerably easier to get away with one.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the worst thing about being blind would be the inability to see if there were bugs in your food. This is the essence of the DRE problem: the devices offer a number of potential advantages, and if designed properly, could eliminate or mitigate a slew of serious problems, only the user has no way of knowing if they're crawling with bugs.

The ugly

The voter verifiable paper record has become the clarion call of DRE skeptics. Their reasoning is simple: if a machine is suspect, the paper printout creates a separate medium for a presumably reliable recount. Only there are two problems: first, many election regulations specify that a recount must be performed in the same manner as the original election. Thus, if the machines are in use, such laws would require that the memory devices be read again, yielding the same, meaningless result ad infinitum.

Many devices have storage media as well as memory modules. But it is not known what would happen if the two should record different results, either due to an attack or a malfunction. Which is paramount? And if one should be empty, is the other an acceptable substitute without corroboration from a third source of data?

Second, in venues where paper printouts could legally be tallied in lieu of the electronic result, accuracy can only be assured if all voters review their recipts carefully, assuming they recall what they decided on fifty or a hundred questions moments earlier - a significant challenge. Furthermore, there are man-in-the-middle attacks that could potentially record the voter's input correctly on the paper record, but stealthily tweak the electronic results. And let's not forget that the paper output could be manipulated, though presumably, some sharp-eyed voter will notice this. If the two sets of results differ, the question then would be, which is paramount? The paper record is useful only if it is paramount, but as previously noted, there are numerous precincts where it probably won't be, and others where it will. Such uncertainties could entertain the courts for months - far past the deadline for election certification.

And the DRE machines are quite hackable at the moment. Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Aviel Rubin testified that "not only have the vendors not implemented the security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy."

Witness Neil McClure of vendor Hart Intercivic recommended that DRE manufacturers be required to implement the FIPS 140-2 crypto module standard. This would be "a great first step toward putting DREs on a path to becoming a trusted computing device," he reckoned.

No fan of the paper-trail panacea, McClure claimed that "irregularities can be traced to product quality issues," and advocated raising quality requirements and implementing national quality-management systems and testing requirements for all voting devices. Which of course will not happen, at least not between now and November.

Spin

Diebold Election Systems marketing director Mark Radke begged to differ with the curmudgeons and nay-sayers. His company's equipment is flawless, he implied - so flawless that it makes no sense to test whether or not it really is, because it has to be.

Asked to explain the basis for Diebold's claim that its kit is "eight times more accurate than paper balloting", Radke replied: "That would be based on such things as undervoting statistics and so on, against statistical fact, based on the information that we had for those elections."

"So when you use the word 'accuracy', you haven't really taken into account the possibility of tampering?" he was asked.

"Actually, no," he allowed. "We feel that our system is very secure, so that is not taken into consideration."

And there have been no reports of fraud or tampering, he added.

When questioned about uncertified software patches given to Georgia officials, Radke explained that these involved merely "a modification to the operating system, not to the tabulation software on our touch screen voting systems. It did not affect the tabulation process at all.

"We had a situation where, quite honestly, we had a few strains that we had difficulties on some of the units, and it was affected by the operating system; so since it did not affect the tabulation process at all, and did not affect that software, the operating system was modified. And, after those modifications were done, all the logic and accuracy testing was done, so every touch screen was tested before it was deployed."

It remains to be seen if such assurances will satisfy a technology-suspcious electorate when the inevitable tight-race disputes emerge, or if something far worse than Florida in 2000 will result. The public may not be in any position to judge how reliable DREs are in reality, but the constant example of Microsoft and its monthly worm debacles has persuaded many that computers can't be trusted.

Unfortunately, voter confidence in DRE currently depends on a Commission with little power and even less understanding, left to issue recommendations for election improvements based on conflicting testimony, and burdened by a September or thereabouts deadline for final certification of all equipment.

Ach, Chad, we hardly knew ye. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a complete guide to system hardening, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

Related stories

California preps e-voting ban bill
California decertifies Diebold bugware
Ireland to scrap e-voting plan
California set to reject Diebold e-voting machines
Judge OKs California e-voting
Pentagon cans Internet voting system
UK not ready for e-voting


Other stories you might like

  • Zuckerberg sued for alleged role in Cambridge Analytica data-slurp scandal
    I can prove CEO was 'personally involved in Facebook’s failure to protect privacy', DC AG insists

    Cambridge Analytica is back to haunt Mark Zuckerberg: Washington DC's Attorney General filed a lawsuit today directly accusing the Meta CEO of personal involvement in the abuses that led to the data-slurping scandal. 

    DC AG Karl Racine filed [PDF] the civil suit on Monday morning, saying his office's investigations found ample evidence Zuck could be held responsible for that 2018 cluster-fsck. For those who've put it out of mind, UK-based Cambridge Analytica harvested tens of millions of people's info via a third-party Facebook app, revealing a – at best – somewhat slipshod handling of netizens' privacy by the US tech giant.

    That year, Racine sued Facebook, claiming the social network was well aware of the analytics firm's antics yet failed to do anything meaningful until the data harvesting was covered by mainstream media. Facebook repeatedly stymied document production attempts, Racine claimed, and the paperwork it eventually handed over painted a trail he said led directly to Zuck. 

    Continue reading
  • Florida's content-moderation law kept on ice, likely unconstitutional, court says
    So cool you're into free speech because that includes taking down misinformation

    While the US Supreme Court considers an emergency petition to reinstate a preliminary injunction against Texas' social media law HB 20, the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday partially upheld a similar injunction against Florida's social media law, SB 7072.

    Both Florida and Texas last year passed laws that impose content moderation restrictions, editorial disclosure obligations, and user-data access requirements on large online social networks. The Republican governors of both states justified the laws by claiming that social media sites have been trying to censor conservative voices, an allegation that has not been supported by evidence.

    Multiple studies addressing this issue say right-wing folk aren't being censored. They have found that social media sites try to take down or block misinformation, which researchers say is more common from right-leaning sources.

    Continue reading
  • US-APAC trade deal leaves out Taiwan, military defense not ruled out
    All fun and games until the chip factories are in the crosshairs

    US President Joe Biden has heralded an Indo-Pacific trade deal signed by several nations that do not include Taiwan. At the same time, Biden warned China that America would help defend Taiwan from attack; it is home to a critical slice of the global chip industry, after all. 

    The agreement, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), is still in its infancy, with today's announcement enabling the United States and the other 12 participating countries to begin negotiating "rules of the road that ensure [US businesses] can compete in the Indo-Pacific," the White House said. 

    Along with America, other IPEF signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Combined, the White House said, the 13 countries participating in the IPEF make up 40 percent of the global economy. 

    Continue reading
  • 381,000-plus Kubernetes API servers 'exposed to internet'
    Firewall isn't a made-up word from the Hackers movie, people

    A large number of servers running the Kubernetes API have been left exposed to the internet, which is not great: they're potentially vulnerable to abuse.

    Nonprofit security organization The Shadowserver Foundation recently scanned 454,729 systems hosting the popular open-source platform for managing and orchestrating containers, finding that more than 381,645 – or about 84 percent – are accessible via the internet to varying degrees thus providing a cracked door into a corporate network.

    "While this does not mean that these instances are fully open or vulnerable to an attack, it is likely that this level of access was not intended and these instances are an unnecessarily exposed attack surface," Shadowserver's team stressed in a write-up. "They also allow for information leakage on version and build."

    Continue reading
  • A peek into Gigabyte's GPU Arm for AI, HPC shops
    High-performance platform choices are going beyond the ubiquitous x86 standard

    Arm-based servers continue to gain momentum with Gigabyte Technology introducing a system based on Ampere's Altra processors paired with Nvidia A100 GPUs, aimed at demanding workloads such as AI training and high-performance compute (HPC) applications.

    The G492-PD0 runs either an Ampere Altra or Altra Max processor, the latter delivering 128 64-bit cores that are compatible with the Armv8.2 architecture.

    It supports 16 DDR4 DIMM slots, which would be enough space for up to 4TB of memory if all slots were filled with 256GB memory modules. The chassis also has space for no fewer than eight Nvidia A100 GPUs, which would make for a costly but very powerful system for those workloads that benefit from GPU acceleration.

    Continue reading
  • GitLab version 15 goes big on visibility and observability
    GitOps fans can take a spin on the free tier for pull-based deployment

    One-stop DevOps shop GitLab has announced version 15 of its platform, hot on the heels of pull-based GitOps turning up on the platform's free tier.

    Version 15.0 marks the arrival of GitLab's next major iteration and attention this time around has turned to visibility and observability – hardly surprising considering the acquisition of OpsTrace as 2021 drew to a close, as well as workflow automation, security and compliance.

    GitLab puts out monthly releases –  hitting 15.1 on June 22 –  and we spoke to the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, about what will be added to version 15 as time goes by. During a chat with the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, The Register was told that this was more where dollars were being invested into the product.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022