By Ian Hoffman
Elections officials in several states are scrambling to understand and
limit the risk from a "dangerous" security hole found in Diebold
Election Systems Inc.'s ATM-like touch-screen voting machines.
The hole is considered more worrisome than most security problems
discovered on modern voting machines, such as weak encryption, easily
pickable locks and use of the same, weak password nationwide.
Armed with a little basic knowledge of Diebold voting systems and a
standard component available at any computer store, someone with a
minute or two of access to a Diebold touch screen could load virtually
any software into the machine and disable it, redistribute votes or
alter its performance in myriad ways.
"This one is worse than any of the others I've seen. It's more
fundamental," said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer
scientist and veteran voting-system examiner for the state of Iowa.
"In the other ones, we've been arguing about the security of the locks
on the front door," Jones said. "Now we find that there's no back
door. This is the kind of thing where if the states don't get out in
front of the hackers, there's a real threat."
The Argus is withholding some details of the vulnerability at the
request of several elections officials and scientists, partly because
exploiting it is so simple and the tools for doing so are widely
available. A Finnish computer expert working with Black Box Voting, a
nonprofit organization critical of electronic voting, found the
security hole in March after Emery County, Utah, was forced by state
officials to accept Diebold touch screens, and a local elections
official allowed the expert to examine the machines.
Black Box Voting was to issue two reports today on the security hole,
one of limited distribution that explains the vulnerability fully and
one for public release that withholds key technical details.
The computer expert, Harri Hursti, quietly sent word of the
vulnerability in March to several computer scientists who advise
various states on voting systems.
At least two of those scientists verified some or all of Hursti's
findings. Several notified their states and requested meetings with
Diebold to understand the problem.
The National Association of State Elections Directors, the
non-governmental group that issues national-level approvals for voting
systems, learned of the vulnerability Tuesday and was weighing its
States are scheduled to hold primary elections in May, June and July.
"Our voting systems board is looking at this issue," said NASED
chairman Kevin Kennedy, a Wisconsin elections official. "The states
are talking among themselves and looking at plans to mitigate this."
Pennsylvania, California and Iowa are issuing emergency notices to
local elections officials, generally telling them to "sequester" their
Diebold touch screens and reprogram them with "trusted" software
issued by the state capital.
Elections officials are to keep the machines sealed with
tamper-resistant tape until Elections Day.
In California, three counties - San Joaquin, Butte and Kern - plan to
rely exclusively on Diebold touch screens in their polling places for
the June primary. Nine other counties, including Alameda, Los Angeles
and San Diego, will use Diebold touch screens for early voting or for
limited, handicapped-accessible voting in their polling places.
California elections officials told those counties Friday that the
risk from the vulnerability was "low" and that any vote tampering
would be revealed to voters on the paper read-out that prints when
they cast their ballots, as well as to elections officials when they
recount those printouts for 1 percent of their precincts after the
"I think the likelihood of this happening is low," assistant Secretary
of State for elections Susan Lapsley said. "It assumes access and
control for a lengthy period of time."
But scientists say that is not necessarily true.
Preparations could be made days or weeks beforehand, and the loading
of the software could take only a minute once the machines are
delivered to the polling places.
In some cases, machines are delivered several days before an election
to schools, churches, homes and other polling places.
Scientists said Diebold appeared to have opened the hole by making it
as easy as possible to upgrade the software inside its machines.
The result, said Iowa's Jones, is a violation of federal voting system
"All of us who have heard the technical details of this are really
shocked. It defies reason that anyone who works with security would
tolerate this design," he said.
=A9 2000-2006 ANG Newspapers
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