November 19, 2017

Archives for February 2011

The trick to defeating tamper-indicating seals

In this post I’ll tell you the trick to defeating physical tamper-evident seals.

When I signed on as an expert witness in the New Jersey voting-machines lawsuit, voting machines in New Jersey used hardly any security seals. The primary issues were in my main areas of expertise: computer science and computer security.

Even so, when the state stuck a bunch of security seals on their voting machines in October 2008, I found that I could easily defeat them. I sent in a supplement expert report to the Court, explaining how.

Soon after I sent in my report about how to defeat all the State’s new seals, in January 2009 the State told the Court that it was abandoning all those seals, and that it had new seals for the voting machines. As before, I obtained samples of these new seals, and went down to my basement to work on them.

In a day or two, I figured out how to defeat all those new seals.

  • The vinyl tamper-indicating tape can be defeated using packing tape, a razor blade, and (optionally) a heat gun.
  • The blue padlock seal can be defeated with a portable drill and a couple of jigs that I made from scrap metal.
  • The security screw cap can be defeated with a $5 cold chisel and a $10 long-nose pliers, each custom ground on my bench grinder.

For details and pictures, see “Seal Regime #3” in this paper.

The main trick is this: just to know that physical seals are, in general, easy to defeat. Once you know that, then it’s just a matter of thinking about how to do it, and having a pile of samples on which to experiment. In fact, the techniques I describe in my paper are not the only way to defeat these seals, or the best way—not even close. These techniques are what an amateur could come up with. But these seal-defeats were good enough to work just fine when I demonstrated them in the courtroom during my testimony, and they would almost certainly not be detected by the kinds of seal-inspection protocols that most states (including New Jersey) use for election equipment.

(In addition, the commenters on my previous post describe a very simple denial-of-service attack on elections: brazenly cut or peel all the seals in sight. Then what will the election officials do? In principle they should throw out the ballots or data covered by those seals. But then what? “Do-overs” of elections are rare and messy. I suspect the most common action in this case is not even to notice anything wrong; and the second most common is to notice it but say nothing. Nobody wants to rock the boat.)

Seals on NJ voting machines, October-December 2008

In my examination of New Jersey’s voting machines, I found that there were no tamper-indicating seals that prevented fiddling with the vote-counting software—just a plastic strap seal on the vote cartridge. And I was rather skeptical whether slapping seals on the machine would really secure the ROMs containing the software. I remembered Avi Rubin’s observations from a couple of years earlier, that I described in a previous post.

A bit of googling turned up this interesting 1996 article:


Vulnerability Assessment of Security Seals
Roger G. Johnston, Ph.D. and Anthony R.E. Garcia
Los Alamos National Laboratory

… We studied 94 different security seals, both passive and electronic, developed either commercially or by the United States Government. Most of these seals are in wide-spread use, including for critical applications. We learned how to defeat all 94 seals using rapid, inexpensive, low-tech methods.

In my expert report, I cited this scientific article to explain that seals would not be a panacea to solve the problems with the voting machine.

Soon after I delivered this report to the Court, the judge held a hearing in which she asked the defendants (the State of New Jersey) how they intended to secure these voting machines against tampering. A few weeks later, the State explained their new system: more seals.

For the November 2008 election, they slapped on three pieces of tape, a wire seal, and a “security screw cap”, in addition to the plastic strap seal that had already been in use. All these seals are in the general categories described by Johnston and Garcia as easy to defeat using “rapid, inexpensive, low-tech methods”.

Up to this point I knew in theory (by reading Avi Rubin and Roger Johnston) that tamper-indicating seals aren’t very secure, but I hadn’t really tried anything myself.

Here’s what is not so obvious: If you want to study how to lift and replace a seal without breaking it, or how to counterfeit a seal, you can’t practice on the actual voting machine (or other device) in the polling place! You need a few dozen samples of the seal, so that you can try different approaches, to see what works and what doesn’t. Then you need to practice these approaches over and over. So step 1 is to get a big bag of seals.

What I’ve discovered, by whipping out a credit card and trying it, is that the seal vendors are happy to sell you 100 seals, or 1000, or however many you need. They cost about 50 cents apiece, or more, depending on the seal. So I bought some seals. In addition, under Court order we got some samples from the State, but that wasn’t really necessary as all those seals are commercially available, as I found by a few minutes of googling.

The next step was to go down to my basement workshop and start experimenting. After about a day of thinking about the seals and trying things out, I cracked them all.

As I wrote in December 2008, all those seals are easily defeated.

  • The tamper-indicating tape can be lifted using a heat gun and a razor blade, then replaced with no indication of tampering.
  • The security screw cap can be removed using a screwdriver, then the
    serial-numbered top can be replaced (undamaged) onto a fresh (unnumbered) base.

  • The wire seal can be defeated using a #4 wood screw.
  • The plastic strap seal can be picked using a jeweler’s screwdriver.

For details and pictures, see “Seal Regime #2” in this paper.

Super Bust: Due Process and Domain Name Seizure

With the same made-for PR timing that prompted a previous seizure of domain names just before shopping’s “Cyber Monday,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement struck again, this time days before the Super Bowl, against “10 websites that illegally streamed live sporting telecasts and pay-per-view events over the Internet.” ICE executed seizure warrants against the 10, ATDHE.NET, CHANNELSURFING.NET, HQ-STREAMS.COM, HQSTREAMS.NET, FIRSTROW.NET, ILEMI.COM, IILEMI.COM, IILEMII.COM, ROJADIRECTA.ORG and ROJADIRECTA.COM, by demanding that registries redirect nameserver requests for the domains to 74.81.170.110, where a colorful “This domain name has been seized by ICE” graphic is displayed.

This domain name has been seized

As in a previous round of seizures, these warrants were issued ex parte, without the participation of the owners of the domain names or the websites operating there. And, as in the previous rounds, there are questions about the propriety of the shutdowns. One of the sites whose domain was seized was Spanish site rojadirecta.com / rojadirecta.org, a linking site that had previously defeated copyright infringement claims in Madrid, its home jurisdiction. There, it prevailed on arguments that it did not host infringing material, but provided links to software and streams elsewhere on the Internet. Senator Ron Wyden has questioned the seizures, saying he “worr[ies] that domain name seizures could function as a means for end-running the normal legal process in order to target websites that may prevail in full court.”

According to ICE, the domains were subject to civil forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 2323(a), for “for illegally distributing copyrighted sporting events,” and seizure under § 981. That raises procedural problems, however: when the magistrate gets the request for seizure warrant, he or she hears only one side — the prosecutor’s. Without any opposing counsel, the judge is unlikely to learn whether the accused sites are general-purpose search engines or hosting sites for user-posted material, or sites providing or encouraging infringement. (Google, for example, has gotten many complaints from the NFL requesting the removal of links — should their domains be seized too?)

Now I don’t want to judge one way or the other based on limited evidence. Chilling Effects has DMCA takedown demands from several parties demanding that Google remove from its search index pages on some of these sites — complaints that are themselves one-side’s allegation of infringement.

What I’d like to see instead is due process for the accused before domain names are seized and sites disrupted. I’d like to know that the magistrate judge saw an accurate affidavit, and reviewed it with enough expertise to distinguish the location of complained-of material and the responsibility the site’s owners bear for it: the difference between direct, contributory, vicarious, and inducement of copyright infringement (for any of which a site-owner might be held liable, in appropriate circumstances) and innocent or protected activity. As Joe Hall has written here, domain names can’t defend themselves.

In the best case, the accused gets evidence of the case against him or her and the opportunity to challenge it. We tend to believe that the adversarial process, judgment after argument between the parties with the most direct interests in the matter, best and most fairly approaches the truth. These seizures, however, are conducted ex parte, with only the government agent presenting evidence supporting a seizure warrant. (We might ask why: a domain name cannot disappear or flee the jurisdiction if the accused is notified — the companies running the .com, .net, and .org registries where these were seized have shown no inclination to move or disregard US court orders, while if the name stops resolving, that’s the same resolution ICE seeks by force.)

If seizures must be made on ex parte affidavits, the magistrate judges should feel free to question the affiants and the evidence presented to them and to call upon experts or amici to brief the issues. In their review, magistrates should beware that a misfired seizure can cause irreparable injury to lawfully operating site-operators, innovators, and independent artists using sites for authorized promotion of their own materials.

I’d like to compile a set of public recommendations to the magistrate judges who might be confronted with these search warrants in the future, if ICE’s “Operation In Our Sites” continues. This would include verifying that the alleged infringements are the intended purpose of the domain name use, not merely a small proportion of a lawful general-use site.