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Security Vulnerability in ESS ExpressVote Touchscreen Voting Computer

Of course the ESS ExpressVote voting computer will have lots of security vulnerabilities. It’s a computer, and computers have lots of vulnerabilities. This particular vulnerability is particularly interesting because it’s the result of a security mistake in the design process. Someone didn’t think the security through, and the result is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail that doesn’t provide the security it promises.

Here are the details:

Now there’s an even worse option than “DRE with paper trail”; I call it “press this button if it’s OK for the machine to cheat” option. The country’s biggest vendor of voting machines, ES&S, has a line of voting machines called ExpressVote. Some of these are optical scanners (which are fine), and others are “combination” machines, basically a ballot-marking device and an optical scanner all rolled into one.

This video shows a demonstration of ExpressVote all-in-one touchscreens purchased by Johnson County, Kansas. The voter brings a blank ballot to the machine, inserts it into a slot, chooses candidates. Then the machine prints those choices onto the blank ballot and spits it out for the voter to inspect. If the voter is satisfied, she inserts it back into the slot, where it is counted (and dropped into a sealed ballot box for possible recount or audit).

So far this seems OK, except that the process is a bit cumbersome and not completely intuitive (watch the video for yourself). It still suffers from the problems I describe above: voter may not carefully review all the choices, especially in down-ballot races; counties need to buy a lot more voting machines, because voters occupy the machine for a long time (in contrast to op-scan ballots, where they occupy a cheap cardboard privacy screen).

But here’s the amazingly bad feature: “The version that we have has an option for both ways,” [Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie] Metsker said. “We instruct the voters to print their ballots so that they can review their paper ballots, but they’re not required to do so. If they want to press the button ‘cast ballot,’ it will cast the ballot, but if they do so they are doing so with full knowledge that they will not see their ballot card, it will instead be cast, scanned, tabulated and dropped in the secure ballot container at the backside of the machine.” [TYT Investigates, article by Jennifer Cohn, September 6, 2018]

Now it’s easy for a hacked machine to cheat undetectably! All the fraudulent vote-counting program has to do is wait until the voter chooses between “cast ballot without inspecting” and “inspect ballot before casting.” If the latter, then don’t cheat on this ballot. If the former, then change votes how it likes, and print those fraudulent votes on the paper ballot, knowing that the voter has already given up the right to look at it.

A voter-verifiable paper audit trail does not require every voter to verify the paper ballot. But it does require that every voter be able to verify the paper ballot. I am continuously amazed by how bad electronic voting machines are. Yes, they’re computers. But they also seem to be designed by people who don’t understand computer (or any) security.

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Suing South Carolina Because Its Election Machines Are Insecure

A group called Protect Democracy is suing South Carolina because its insecure voting machines are effectively denying people the right to vote.

Note: I am an advisor to Protect Democracy on its work related to election cybersecurity, and submitted a declaration in litigation it filed, challenging President Trump’s now-defunct “election integrity” commission.

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The US Is Unprepared for Election-Related Hacking in 2018

This survey and report is not surprising:

The survey of nearly forty Republican and Democratic campaign operatives, administered through November and December 2017, revealed that American political campaign staff — primarily working at the state and congressional levels — are not only unprepared for possible cyber attacks, but remain generally unconcerned about the threat. The survey sample was relatively small, but nevertheless the survey provides a first look at how campaign managers and staff are responding to the threat.

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not want to devote campaign resources to cybersecurity or to hire personnel to address cybersecurity issues. Even though campaign managers recognize there is a high probability that campaign and personal emails are at risk of being hacked, they are more concerned about fundraising and press coverage than they are about cybersecurity. Less than half of those surveyed said they had taken steps to make their data secure and most were unsure if they wanted to spend any money on this protection.

Security is never something we actually want. Security is something we need in order to avoid what we don’t want. It’s also more abstract, concerned with hypothetical future possibilities. Of course it’s lower on the priorities list than fundraising and press coverage. They’re more tangible, and they’re more immediate.

This is all to the attackers’ advantage.

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Facebook Will Verify the Physical Location of Ad Buyers with Paper Postcards

It’s not a great solution, but it’s something:

The process of using postcards containing a specific code will be required for advertising that mentions a specific candidate running for a federal office, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global director of policy programs, said. The requirement will not apply to issue-based political ads, she said.

“If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,” Harbath said at a weekend conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, where executives from Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google also spoke.

“It won’t solve everything,” Harbath said in a brief interview with Reuters following her remarks.

But sending codes through old-fashioned mail was the most effective method the tech company could come up with to prevent Russians and other bad actors from purchasing ads while posing as someone else, Harbath said.

It does mean a several-days delay between purchasing an ad and seeing it run.

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Commentary on US Election Security

Good commentaries from Ed Felten and Matt Blaze.

Both make a point that I have also been saying: hacks can undermine the legitimacy of an election, even if there is no actual voter or vote manipulation.

Felten:

The second lesson is that we should be paying more attention to attacks that aim to undermine the legitimacy of an election rather than changing the election’s result. Election-stealing attacks have gotten most of the attention up to now — ­and we are still vulnerable to them in some places — ­but it appears that external threat actors may be more interested in attacking legitimacy.

Attacks on legitimacy could take several forms. An attacker could disrupt the operation of the election, for example, by corrupting voter registration databases so there is uncertainty about whether the correct people were allowed to vote. They could interfere with post-election tallying processes, so that incorrect results were reported­ an attack that might have the intended effect even if the results were eventually corrected. Or the attacker might fabricate evidence of an attack, and release the false evidence after the election.

Legitimacy attacks could be easier to carry out than election-stealing attacks, as well. For one thing, a legitimacy attacker will typically want the attack to be discovered, although they might want to avoid having the culprit identified. By contrast, an election-stealing attack must avoid detection in order to succeed. (If detected, it might function as a legitimacy attack.)

Blaze:

A hostile state actor who can compromise a handful of county networks might not even need to alter any actual votes to create considerable uncertainty about an election’s legitimacy. It may be sufficient to simply plant some suspicious software on back end networks, create some suspicious audit files, or add some obviously bogus names to to the voter rolls. If the preferred candidate wins, they can quietly do nothing (or, ideally, restore the compromised networks to their original states). If the “wrong” candidate wins, however, they could covertly reveal evidence that county election systems had been compromised, creating public doubt about whether the election had been “rigged”. This could easily impair the ability of the true winner to effectively govern, at least for a while.

In other words, a hostile state actor interested in disruption may actually have an easier task than someone who wants to undetectably steal even a small local office. And a simple phishing and trojan horse email campaign like the one in the NSA report is potentially all that would be needed to carry this out.

Me:

Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­ by extension ­ our democracy.

And, finally, a report from the Brennan Center for Justice on how to secure elections.

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