RSA 2012 Security experts have warned that electronic voting systems are decades away from being secure, and to prove it a team from the University of Michigan successfully got the foul-mouthed, drunken Futurama robot Bender elected to head of a school board.
In 2010 the Washington DC election board announced it had set up an e-voting system for absentee ballots and was planning to use it in an election. However, to test the system, it invited the security community and members of the public to try and hack it three weeks before the election.
"It was too good an opportunity to pass up," explained Professor Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan. "How often do you get the chance to hack a government network without the possibility of going to jail?"
With the help of two graduate students, Halderman started to examine the software. Despite it being a relatively clean Ruby on Rails build, they spotted a shell injection vulnerability within a few hours. They figured out a way of writing directly to the images directory on the compromised server – and then encrypting the traffic so that the front-end intrusion detection system did not spot the intrusion. The team also managed to guess the login details for the terminal server used by the voting system. This wasn't exactly difficult, since the user name and password were both "admin".
Once in, the team searched the government servers for additional vulnerabilities and system options. They found that the cameras installed to watch the voting systems weren't protected, and used them to work out when staff left for the day and so wouldn't spot server activity. More worrying, they also found a PDF file containing the authentication codes for every Washington DC voter in the forthcoming election.
The team altered all the ballots on the system to vote for none of the nominated candidates. They then wrote in names of fictional IT systems as candidates, including Skynet and (Halderman's personal favorite) Bender for head of the DC school board. They also set up systems so that any further ballots would come under their control.
According to the log files the team found, plenty of people were also busy trying to get into the system. They spotted attempts to get in from the Persian University, as well as India and China. Using their inside access, they blocked these attacks. Finally, they inserted the word "owned" onto the final signoff screen of the voting page, and set up the University of Michigan football fight song to play after 15 seconds.
It took two days before the authorities discovered they'd been pwned, and they were only alerted to that fact when another tester told them the system was secure, but that they should lose the music on the sign-off screen, as it was rather annoying. Halderman has now published a full account of the attack.
The attack demonstrates several of the flaws in electronic voting systems, and at numerous sessions at the RSA 2012 conference in San Francisco, experts have consistently warned against the dangers of this technology. In the US, there are 33 states that have introduced some kind of electronic voting systems – and none of them are secure enough to resist a determined attacker said Dr. David Jefferson from Lawrence Livermore National Labs.
"The states are in the habit of certifying voting systems, typically without testing them or seeing the source code," he said. "In many cases the voting system uses proprietary code that government can't legally check, and the running of the systems is outsourced to the vendors. This situation is getting worse."
E-voting was a national security issue, he said. Financial attacks by hackers are relatively easy to detect – because at some point money has to leave the system. But if an election is hacked then we may never know, because it's a one-time action that typically isn't checked after the results have been announced and officials elected.
It will be decades before we have the technology to vote securely, Jefferson said, if indeed it is even possible. At stake is democracy itself, but politicians don't seem to understand the problems of electronic voting, and both Jefferson and Halderman expressed fears for the future if current systems become more popular. ®