Computer scientists demonstrated that criminals could hack an electronic voting machine and steal votes using a malicious programming approach that had not been invented when the voting machine was designed.
The team of scientists from University of California, San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University employed “return-oriented programming” to force a Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic voting machine to turn against itself and steal votes.
“Voting machines must remain secure throughout their entire service lifetime, and this study demonstrates how a relatively new programming technique can be used to take control of a voting machine that was designed to resist takeover, but that did not anticipate this new kind of malicious programming,” said Hovav Shacham, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering and an author on the new study presented on August 10, 2009 at the 2009 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop / Workshop on Trustworthy Elections (EVT/WOTE 2009), the premier academic forum for voting security research.
In 2007, Shacham first described return-oriented programming, which is a powerful systems security exploit that generates malicious behavior by combining short snippets of benign code already present in the system.
The new study demonstrates that return-oriented programming can be used to execute vote-stealing computations by taking control of a voting machine designed to prevent code injection. Shacham and UC San Diego computer science Ph.D. student Stephen Checkoway collaborated with researchers from Princeton University and the University of Michigan on this project.
“With this work, we hope to encourage further public dialog regarding what voting technologies can best ensure secure elections and what stop gap measures should be adopted if less than optimal systems are still in use,” said J. Alex Halderman, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the University of Michigan.
The computer scientists had no access to the machine’s source code—or any other proprietary information—when designing the demonstration attack. By using just the information that would be available to anyone who bought or stole a voting machine, the researchers addressed a common criticism made against voting security researchers: that they enjoy unrealistic access to the systems they study.
“Based on our understanding of security and computer technology, it looks like paper-based elections are the way to go. Probably the best approach would involve fast optical scanners reading paper ballots. These kinds of paper-based systems are amenable to statistical audits, which is something the election security research community is shifting to,” said Shacham.
“You can actually run a modern and efficient election on paper that does not look like the Florida 2000 Presidential election,” said Shacham. “If you are using electronic voting machines, you need to have a separate paper record at the very least.”
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