A security flaw in New South Wales’ Internet voting system may have left as many as 66,000 votes vulnerable to interception and manipulation in a recent election, according to security researchers. Despite repeated assurances from the Electoral Commission that all Internet votes are “fully encrypted and safeguarded,” six days into online voting, Michigan Computer Science Professor J. Alex Halderman and University of Melbourne Research Fellow Vanessa Teague discovered a FREAK flaw that could allow an attacker to intercept votes and inject their own code to change those votes, all without leaving any trace of the manipulation. (FREAK stands for Factoring RSA Export Keys and refers to the exploitation of a weakness in the SSL/TLS protocol that allows attackers to force browsers to use weak encryption keys.) But instead of taking the researchers’ message to heart, officials instead attacked the messengers.
The New South Wales (NSW) Internet voting system, iVote, was designed to make it easier for the disabled, residents not in NSW during voting hours, and rural residents 20 kilometers away from a polling location to vote. The problem is that the system was not ready to be one of the biggest online voting experiments in the world. Even before the election, Halderman and Teague warned that the NSW system had not sufficiently addressed potential security concerns.
Sadly, NSW officials seemed more interested in protecting their reputations than the integrity of elections. They sharply criticized Halderman and Teague, rather than commending them, for their discovery of the FREAK attack vulnerability. The Chief Information Officer of the Electoral Commission, Ian Brightwell, claimed Halderman and Teague’s discovery was part of efforts by “well-funded, well-managed anti-internet voting lobby groups,” an apparent reference to our friends at VerifiedVoting.org, where Halderman and Teague are voluntary Advisory Board members.1 Yet at the same time, Brightwell concluded that it was indeed possible that votes were manipulated. Happily, despite criticizing the messengers, the Electoral Commission admitted that there was a FREAK flaw with iVote and scrambled to promptly patch it.