When Princeton Professor Andrew Appel decided to hack into a voting machine, he didn’t try to mimic the Russian attackers who hacked into the DNC’s database last month. He didn’t write malicious code, or linger near a polling place where the machines can go unguarded for days. Instead, he bought one online. With a few cursory clicks of a mouse, Appel parted with $82 and became the owner of an ungainly metallic giant called the Sequoia AVC Advantage, one of the oldest and vulnerable, electronic voting machines in the United States (among other places it’s deployed in Louisiana, New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania). No sooner did a team of bewildered deliverymen roll the 250-pound device into a conference room near Appel’s cramped, third-floor office than the professor set to work. He summoned a graduate student named Alex Halderman, who could pick the machine’s lock in seven seconds. Clutching a screwdriver, he deftly wedged out the four ROM chips—they weren’t soldered into the circuit board, as sense might dictate—making it simple to replace them with one of his own: A version of modified firmware that could throw off the machine’s results, subtly altering the tally of votes, never to betray a hint to the voter. The attack was concluded in minutes. To mark the achievement, his student snapped a photo of Appel—oblong features, messy black locks and a salt-and-pepper beard—grinning for the camera, fists still on the circuit board, as if to look directly into the eyes of the American taxpayer: Don’t look at me—you’re the one who paid for this thing. Appel’s mischief might be called an occupational asset: He is part of a diligent corps of so-called cyber-academics—professors who have spent the last decade serving their country by relentlessly hacking it. Electronic voting machines—particularly a design called Direct Recording Electronic, or DRE’s—took off in 2002, in the wake of Bush v. Gore. For the ensuing 15 years, Appel and his colleagues have deployed every manner of stunt to convince the public that the system is pervasively unsecure and vulnerable.
… “No county clerk anywhere in the United States has the ability to defend themselves against advanced persistent threats,” Wallach tells me, using the parlance of industry for highly motivated hackers who “lay low and stick around for a while.” Wallach painted an unseemly picture, in which a seasoned cyber warrior overseas squared off against a septuagenarian volunteer. “In the same way,” continues Wallach, “you would not expect your local police department to be able to repel a foreign military power.” In the academic research, hacks of the machines are far more pervasive; digitized voting registrations or tabulation software are not ten years old and running on Windows 2000, unlike the machines. Still, they present risks of their own. “There are still plenty of computers involved” even without digital touchscreens, says Appel. “Even with optical scan voting, it’s not just the voting machines themselves—it’s the desktop and laptop computers that election officials use to prepare the ballots, prepare the electronic files from the OpScan machines, panel voter registration, electronic poll books. And the computers that aggregate the results together from all of the optical scans.”
“If any of those get hacked, it could could significantly disrupt the election.”
The digital touchscreens, even with voter verified paper trail, will still be pervasive this election; 28 states keep them in use to some degree, including Ohio and Florida, though increasingly in limited settings. Pam Smith, the director of Verified Voting—a group that tracks the use of voting equipment by precinct in granular detail—isn’t sure how many digital touchscreens are left; no one I spoke with seemed to know. Nor is it clear where they’ll be deployed, a decision left up to county administrators. Smith confirms that after 2007, the number of states that adopted the machines plateaued, and has finally begun to shrink. The number of states using paperless touchscreens—and nothing else—is five: South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Delaware. But the number of states with a significant number of counties with the easily-hacked machines is much larger, at 13, including Indiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. For hacking purposes, there’s little difference: In a close election, only a few precincts with paperless touchscreens would be required to deflate vote totals, says Appel, even if the majority of counties are still in the stone age. Many of Felten’s mad-scientist experiments were designed to metastasize the nefarious code once it gained entry into a machine system.
The move away from electronic voting is a positive one, the professors say; the best option for election security are the optical scans. “Although the optical scan ballots are counted by the computer in the OpScan machine—which you can’t trust—you can trust the pile of ballots that accumulate in the ballot box, marked by users with their own hands,” Appel tells me. With the right auditing policies, “you can recount or do a statistical sample of the ballot boxes to make sure there aren’t cheating computers out there.”
Full Article: How to Hack an Election in 7 Minutes – POLITICO Magazine.