Why A Pilot Internet Voting Project Won’t Tell Us What We Need to Know
Lots of folks have suggested running some elections using Internet voting as pilots, to see whether Internet voting will work. A pilot will not tell us this.
To see why, ask what makes an election “work”? Counting votes accurately is one thing. Another is recording the votes accurately — that is, each vote cast is counted correctly, and no votes are changed. Further, each person gets one vote, just as in a non-Internet election. The computer or smartphone used to cast the vote, casts the vote without change. And so forth.
Now, how can we tell when it “works”? How do we know the results are correct and have not been altered? This is the heart of the problem.
Let’s say we try an Internet voting pilot project in which people can vote from their home computer or a smartphone. If either contains a computer virus that will change the vote after the user casts it, but before it is transmitted to the vote counting system, how can we tell this? The only way is to record the vote of each voter as the voter casts it, and compare that with the election totals. And we can’t simply store the vote on the computer it is cast on; that could be tampered with. We would have to have an impartial, trusted observer watch each person vote, and record the votes cast on paper or on a separate, trusted system. Aside from being impractical, this means that how someone voted can (and undoubtedly will) become known, allowing vote selling and voter intimidation.
So that’s one problem. We have no way of verifying that the Internet voting system recorded and counted votes correctly — that is, we cannot check its accuracy.
So let’s ask a different question: will the pilot tell us if Internet voting is secure?
The “pilot” is really a test of Internet voting. Unfortunately, a basic principle of testing is that testing can never prove the absence of problems; it can only prove the presence of problems. When you test drive a car, you’re looking for problems that the car may have — perhaps it doesn’t accelerate fast enough, or the brake pedal is too stiff. You don’t buy the car. But if you don’t find any problems, you might well buy it — not realizing that the braking system will fail in a year or so due to a manufacturing defect. Your test drive didn’t show the car had no problems — that is, it didn’t prove the absence of problems. It simply showed you that you didn’t find any problems.
Back to the Internet voting pilot. If security folks analyze the pilot system after the election, they may find evidence of an attack that could have altered ballots or vote totals. This would prove the Internet voting system is not secure. But suppose they find nothing — there still could have been a successful attack, but one in which the attackers “cleaned up” after themselves, leaving nothing behind to be detected. The absence of evidence proves nothing.
There’s another issue. Suppose a company built a safe that they believed no-one could crack. They give a safe to anyone who asks, so that these people can try to crack the safe in the privacy of their home. The company has asked people who succeed to report it, and they will receive a check for $10,000. Now, some people who succeed will report it and get the money. But others who succeed will ask, “If a bank believes this safe to be uncrackable, might not the bank install the safe? And if so, think of how much money I could get by cracking the safe in the bank rather than here at home! I just find banks that use the safe, crack it, and take the money.”
This points out another problem. If someone did figure out how to compromise the Internet voting system, why do it on a pilot? Think of what would happen if that malefactor waited, and then compromised a gubernatorial or presidential election! And in history, a very few votes have made a difference; witness LBJ’s election to the U.S. Senate by 87 votes — an event that, had it not occurred, would have changed the course of American history drastically.
Finally, in a real test, experts (and, possibly, others) would attack the Internet voting system to see if they could change votes or block voters from voting. But no reputable computer security expert will ever attack a voting system during an election (it’s a crime), so we cannot test the security of the system and its procedures as actually used. If it's a “pilot” in a real election, the laws about trying to rig elections apply. So the pilot prevents people from testing the system for security and accuracy. It sounds strange, but it’s quite true.
So, we cannot tell if the Internet voting system counts votes correctly in the pilot; we cannot be sure that the voting system wasn’t broken into; and we can’t legally test the system by attacking it. But these are the purposes of a pilot project. Hence the pilot, done in a real election, is not useful. This is why I think having a pilot election using an Internet voting system is a bad idea: we learn nothing from it, and worse, if the pilot seems to go well as far as we can tell, people will (incorrectly) assume the system is secure and accurate. And that gives a completely false sense of security.
As for my credentials: I am a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, where I am a co-director of the Computer Security Laboratory. I have been in the field since 1978. I have been studying electronic and Internet voting since 2004, when I participated in the RABA study of electronic voting systems for the State of Maryland. I was also one of the co-leaders of the technical part of the California Secretary of State’s Top-to-Bottom Review of voting systems certified for use in the State of California. Currently, the National Science Foundation is funding our research on election processes. Our group works with election officials in Yolo and Marin Counties.
Any opinions expressed in this note are those of the author, and not necessarily those of anyone else.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Monday, April 22, 2013
About Internet VotingCalifornia Assembly Bill 19 (Ting, D-San Francisco)  proposes to allow Internet voting. The bill has two serious problems.
The first is in Section 4502(b)(2), which describes what the Internet voting system is to be tested for. They must check that no-one can make the system report inaccurate tallies or change votes. But the bill does not require testing to ensure that all parts of the voting system will be available during the voting period.
Let’s see what this means. During Election Day, when you open your browser and type in the Election Office’s web site, you get a message saying the web site is unavailable. You’re thrilled so many people are voting, so you go to work. While there, you try to vote again, with the same result. This happens whenever you try to cast your vote throughout the day. That evening, at 7:55pm (just before the polls close), you try to vote from home one last time. Again, the web site is “unavailable”. Oh, well.
What you just read is a description of a “denial of service” attack. They are actually fairly common, and extremely easy to launch. In fact, recently many banks (such as U.S. Bank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, CitiBank, and American Express [2,3,4]) were victims of such attacks. But the banks have an advantage that election offices don’t: lots of servers and lots of money. They can hire teams of cybersecurity experts to respond to these attacks, and can reroute traffic to geographically widely distributed servers to mitigate some of the effects of the attack. Even so, the banks all experienced slow-downs that affected customer use of their web sites.
Given that most Election Offices have 1 or 2 people whose job involves cybersecurity (among other functions) and would have a single server to handle Internet voting, the possibility of Internet voting with an inaccessible server is very realistic. And as the above news articles note, these attacks are easy to launch — from anywhere in the world.
In fact, this has happened. During Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey allowed voters to request email ballots by sending an email to county email addresses set up for this purpose . But the email addresses which received the emails were quickly overwhelmed, and email requests for ballots were bouncing . And this was not an attack; it was simply voters requesting email ballots.
Thus, any proposed Internet voting system needs to be able to handle a denial of service attack. But the bill does not require they be tested for this ability.
The second problem is much more basic: what is an “Internet voting system”? The bill defines it in Sec. 4500(2). It includes the election office server, of course, and the Internet. But what else does it include? The system or device you cast your vote on, and that then transmits the vote to the election server.
Let’s assume you are voting on your home computer. How do you know the votes you enter on your computer are what is sent to the server? It is very easy to write programs that alter information; indeed, the infamous computer virus does exactly this. And while antivirus programs are very effective in countering viruses that they know about, they do not protect you against new viruses or other nasty programs on your system. There are many ways to introduce these programs, including having you go to a web site that looks like your bank’s (for example). When you get there, the site has you download something to improve service — and presto!, the malefactors have just put a virus on your system.
With smartphones this is even easier, because we all download apps and run them. The protection most smartphones offer is minimal, so writing an app to cast your vote (suitably doctored, of course) is easy to write. To get you to download it, the perpetrator sends you an email saying that your election official has set up a web site that you can go to for the app — and when you download it, you really download the doctored app. The election official, of course, did not send this letter.
And there are even more problems. The bill doesn’t require the Secretary of State to certify the system, despite what the legislative counsel’s digest says. It simply requires that the report say the system meets “the standards of accuracy, security, integrity, efficacy, and accessibility”; then it is deemed certified (4502(c)). What “the standards” are is nowhere defined. Also, the bill says nothing about certifying the procedures under which the system is to be used.
This last point is critical. Security experts know that a “system” is not secure; a “system” is secure when used in a specific way. A good way to think of this is to consider how safe a car is. When the driver obeys the traffic laws, she is (usually) quite safe. But if she runs red lights, she is not. Similarly, if the Internet voting system procedures are poorly done, or do not take into account the bad things that can prevent voting or corrupting the ballots, poor “system” security is the least of the problems. Yet the bill does not require these be checked.
The quest for Internet voting is a good one; but before the body politic decides that it should be implemented, the dangers and problems of it must be known, discussed openly, and a conscious decision made that the consequences of those problems are acceptable. A pilot study using a real election does not provide this information for several reasons. First, no reputable computer security expert will ever attack a voting system during an election (it’s a crime), so we cannot test the security of the system and its procedures as actually used. Second, enabling detection of some attacks requires a complete record of what happens — including how you voted. Before this type of recording is done, the body politic must decide that how you voted can become known, and accept the attendant risks of vote selling and voter intimidation. Third, a very sophisticated attack could well be undetectable — so how would we know the votes were compromised? And so forth.
I applaud Assemblyman Ting’s desire to increase voter turnout. But this bill isn’t the way to do it.
As for my credentials: I am a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, where I am a co-director of the Computer Security Laboratory. I have been in the field since 1978. I have been studying electronic and Internet voting since 2004, when I participated in the RABA study of electronic voting systems for the State of Maryland . I was also one of the co-leaders of the technical part of the California Secretary of State’s Top-to-Bottom Review of voting systems certified for use in the State of California . Currently, the National Science Foundation is funding our research on election processes [9,10]. Our group works with election officials in Yolo and Marin Counties.
Any opinions expressed in this note are those of the author, and not necessarily those of anyone else.
References “Internet Voting Pilot Program,” Assembly Bill No. 19, California State Assembly (Apr. 16, 2013); available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0001-0050/ab_19_bill_20130416_amended_asm_v97.htm
 “3 More Major US Banks Report Possible Cyber Attacks,” NBC News (Sep. 27, 2012); available at http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/technolog/3-more-major-us-banks-report-possible-cyber-attacks-6126050
 M. Lennon, “Wells Fargo Says DDoS Attack Disrupting Online Banking Website,” Security Week (Mar. 26, 2013); available at http://www.securityweek.com/wells-fargo-says-ddos-attack-disrupting-online-banking-website
 B. Acohido, “Amex Latest U.S. Major Bank to Get Knocked Offline,” USA Today (April 2, 2013); available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/03/29/american-express-denial-of-service-hack/2030197/
 “Christie Administration Announces E-Mail and Fax Voting Available to New Jerseyans Displaced by Hurricane Sandy,” State of New Jersey (Nov. 3, 2012); available at http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/552012/approved/20121103d.html
 B. Sullivan, “New Jersey’s Email Voting Suffers Major Glitches, Deadline Extended to Friday,” NBC News (Nov. 6, 2012); available at http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/06/14974588-new-jerseys-email-voting-suffers-major-glitches-deadline-extended-to-friday
 “Trusted Agent Report Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting System,” RABA Innovative Solution Cell, Columbia, MD (Jan. 20, 2004); available at http://nob.cs.ucdavis.edu/~bishop/notes/2004-RABA/2004-RABA.pdf
 M. Bishop, “Overview of Red Team Reports,” Office of the California Secretary of State (July 2007); available at http://www.sos.ca.gov/voting-systems/oversight/ttbr/red-overview.pdf
 “TC:Medium:Collaborative Research: Technological Support for Improving Election Processes,” award from the National Science Foundation to the University of California at Davis (Sep. 15, 2009); abstract available at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=0905503
 “EAGER: Collaborative: Process-Based Technology to Support Comparison and Evaluation of the Security of Elections,“ award from the National Science Foundation to the University of California at Davis (Oct. 1, 2012); abstract available at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1258577