Thursday, March 26, 2009

CIA expert: Most electronic voting systems are not secure

Voters need to worry about the hackers behind the screen?

(Hat tip: Instapundit)

CIA cybersecurity expert Steve Stigall testified to the federal Election Assistance Commission last month that computerized voting systems can be manipulated in a host of ways from altering voter registration lists to the posting of balloting results. The CIA undertook a study of the systems a few years ago as it looked into the legitimacy of elections in Venezuela, Macedonia, Ukraine and other nations and also to better understand whether foreigners might try to hack U.S. election systems:

Stigall said that voting equipment connected to the Internet could be hacked, and machines that weren't connected could be compromised wirelessly. Eleven U.S. states have banned or limited wireless capability in voting equipment, but Stigall said that election officials didn't always know it when wireless cards were embedded in their machines.

While Stigall said that he wasn't speaking for the CIA and wouldn't address U.S. voting systems, his presentation appeared to undercut calls by some U.S. politicians to shift to Internet balloting, at least for military personnel and other American citizens living overseas. Stigall said that most Web-based ballot systems had proved to be insecure.

The commission has been criticized for giving states more than $1 billion to buy electronic equipment without first setting performance standards. Numerous computer-security experts have concluded that U.S. systems can be hacked, and allegations of tampering in Ohio, Florida and other swing states have triggered a campaign to require all voting machines to produce paper audit trails.


In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Stigall said, hackers took resurrecting the dead to "a new art form" by adding the names of people who'd died in the 18th century to computerized voter-registration lists. Macedonia was accused of "voter genocide" because the names of so many Albanians living in the country were eradicated from the computerized lists, Stigall said.

He said that elections also could be manipulated when votes were cast, when ballots were moved or transmitted to central collection points, when official results were tabulated and when the totals were posted on the Internet.
Nothing is likely to be more destructive to our civil society than the specter of voting fraud or even ambiguity surrounding the results of an important election decided by a handful of votes out of millions cast. Of course, there is no voting system that can perform so perfectly that a razor-thin outcome won't give rise to a legal scrum such as we saw in Florida in 2000 or the one now in its fifth month in Minnesota. Even if election officials are both 100% trustworthy and super-competent, some voters will screw up their ballots.

But we don't need to add to the potential for questionable outcomes and bet our democracy on new systems that may not be secure -- or even systems that don't inspire the voters' confidence. We have enough troubles.

What's your opinion of computerized voting -- and its logical extension, Internet voting? Post a comment.


  1. Can a field officer in Pakistan download classified info from the CIA mainframe ?

    Instead of saying systems don't work, why don't the CIA make specs of systems that work available ?

    Let me see, point click vote, point click count vs hanging chad, re-counts, re-re-counts, meh, I'll take internet voting

  2. I take your point, but secure systems available to CIA, State, etc. are still only as secure as the people who operate and use them.

    In the case of the 50 states and thousands of counties and municipalities that actually run elections, there are all manner of ways that incompetence, fraud and even corruption can seep in. Stigall told the Commission, for example, that Chavez's people in Venezuela had used a sophisticated system to alter results in a way designed to pass through an audit of the returns undetected. That was made possible by corruption and insider control.

    The whole point of one form of computerized voting or another was to improve on the problems caused by older systems (e.g., hanging chads, etc.), but they may not be any better. Not to say they are worse.

  3. I still would like to think developing a hacker/temper proof system, so easy a caveman can operate, is very possible.

    Fastest and cheapest way to do it, let's unionize Google and tell them they need to use such a device for every union vote.

    The Chavez example in return is like asking G. Soros to fund a system, developed by Microsoft and ran by ACORN operatives. Remember the Coleman-Franken race of 2008 ? Hey, I just happened to find 19 boxes of ballots in the trunk of my car... OOoooops !

    Older / Newer system... Would you rather be driving a 1957 King Midget Model III or a 2009 Tata Nano ? Or would you much rather be rolling in a Volvo S60 Concept ?