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Cuyahoga County Possibly Exposed Election System to Computer

Cuyahoga County Possibly Exposed Election System to Computer
Cuyahoga County Possibly Exposed Election System to Computer 

By Ed Felten
November 2, 2006

[The following statement (PDF version with contact info [1]) was 
released today by me and the Election Science Institute. [2] ]

The memory cards that will be used to store votes on Election Day in 
Cuyahoga County, Ohio were stuck into ordinary laptop computers in 
September, possibly exposing the countys election system to a virus 
infection. This serious security lapse was caught on video through the 
efforts of Cleveland resident Adele Eisner and Cleveland-area filmmaker 
Jeffrey Kirkby, who has graciously made his raw footage available on the 
Internet for personal viewing at 

Just one month ago a Princeton evoting study (available at showed that the memory cards used 
in Diebold touchscreen voting systems could carry computer viruses that 
would infect voting machines and steal votes on the infected machines.

"Diebold has repeatedly stated that this type of security breach is 
virtually impossible due to security practices employed by the vendor 
and election officials," said Edward Felten, Professor of Computer 
Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University. "Anyone who watches 
the video can now see for themselves that a virus could penetrate the 
election system via tasks performed by election staff."

The new video shows a group of election workers sitting at tables, each 
with a laptop computer. An official explains that these laptops were 
gathered from around the office, and some are the personal laptops of 
election workers. Each worker has a laptop and a stack of memory cards, 
and is inserting the memory cards one by one into the laptop. Cuyahoga 
County officials claim that every one of the countys memory cards gets 
this treatment, in order to archive vote records from the May 2006 
primary election onto CD-ROMs.

Ordinary laptops are of course vulnerable to computer viruses and other 
malicious software. Given the number of ordinary laptops in the room, it 
is reasonably likely that at least one is infected with spyware, a 
virus, or other malware. This puts at risk the memory cards, and the 
votes they will record from next weeks election.

Given the vulnerability of touch screen voting systems, election 
procedures must be stringent and consistently followed. Safe procedures 
call for memory cards to be inserted only into computers that are 
carefully secured and never connected to the Internet. Using ordinary 
laptop computers, borrowed from offices and homes, to process memory 
cards is dangerous. The video shows that this practice is not the 
isolated act of a few election workers, but an official plan put in 
place by election officials.

"Not only does this video demonstrate how potential security threats can 
be realized, this is yet another illustration of how election officials 
are forced to develop their own processes and procedures in order to 
operate their new election systems," said Steven Hertzberg, Project 
Director at Election Science Institute. "Often we find that critical 
procedures and essential tools were not developed or deployed with this 
new election system, leaving election officials to fend for themselves. 
Diebold should have provided an archiving system as part of their 
delivery to jurisdictions, before this system went live nationally."

Voting machine vendors and election officials often argue that rigorous 
procedures can compensate for the technical weaknesses of voting 
machines. Some jurisdictions implement such procedures well, but many do 
not. Talking about procedural controls is easy. Putting them into 
practice is much harder.

"I first raised concerns to the Cuyahoga County Board of Election in 
mid-Summer, after Secretary of State Blackwell released an advisory 
about transferring electronic election data to CD ROM. After I witnessed 
the transfer, I raised concerns a potential security breach to Cuyahoga 
Board of Elections Chairman Bennett and the rest of the board on October 
2nd," said Adele Eisner. "Unfortunately, the board simply defended its 
dangerous practice."


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