November 19, 2017

My testimony before the House Subcommittee on IT

I was invited to testify yesterday before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Information Technology, at a hearing entitled “Cybersecurity: Ensuring the Integrity of the Ballot Box.”  My written testimony is available here.  My 5-minute opening statement went as follows:

My name is Andrew Appel.  I am Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University.   In this testimony I do not represent my employer. I’m here to give my own professional opinions as a scientist, but also as an American citizen who cares deeply about protecting our democracy.

My research is in software verification, computer security, technology policy, and election machinery.  As I will explain, I strongly recommend that, at a minimum, the Congress seek to ensure the elimination of Direct-Recording Electronic voting machines (sometimes called “touchscreen” machines), immediately after this November’s election; and that it require that all elections be subject to sensible auditing after every election to ensure that systems are functioning properly and to prove to the American people that their votes are counted as cast.

There are cybersecurity issues in all parts of our election system:  before the election, voter-registration databases; during the election, voting machines; after the election, vote-tabulation / canvassing / precinct-aggregation computers.  In my opening statement I’ll focus on voting machines.  The other topics are addressed in a recent report I have co-authored entitled “Ten Things Election Officials Can Do to Help Secure and Inspire Confidence in This Fall’s Elections.”

In the U.S. we use two kinds of voting machines: optical scanners that count paper ballots, and “touchscreen” voting machines, also called “Direct-Recording Electronic.”  Each voting machine is a computer, running a computer program.  Whether that computer counts the votes accurately, or makes mistakes, or cheats by shifting votes from one candidate to another, depends on what software is installed in the computer.  We all use computers, and we’ve all had occasion to install new software.  Sometimes it’s an app we purchase and install on purpose, sometimes it’s a software upgrade sent by the company that made our operating system.  Installing new software in a voting machine is not really much different from installing new software in any other kind of computer.

Installing new software is how you hack a voting machine to cheat. In 2009, in the courtroom of the Superior Court of New Jersey,  I demonstrated how to hack a voting machine.  I wrote a vote-stealing computer program that shifts votes from one candidate to another.   Installing that vote-stealing program in a voting machine takes 7 minutes, per machine, with a screwdriver.  I did this in a secure facility and I’m confident my program has not leaked out to affect real elections, but really the software I built was not rocket science — any computer programmer could write the same code.  Once it’s installed, it could steal elections without detection for years to come.

Voting machines are often delivered to polling places several days before the election—to elementary schools, churches, firehouses.  In these locations anyone could gain access to a voting machine for 10 minutes.  Between elections the machines are routinely opened up for maintenance by county employees or private contractors.  Let’s assume they have the utmost integrity, but still, in the U.S. we try to run our elections so that we can trust the election results without relying on any one individual.

Other computer scientists have demonstrated similar hacks on many models of machine. This is not just one glitch in one manufacturer’s machine, it’s the very nature of computers.

So how can we trust our elections when it’s so easy to make the computers cheat?  Forty states already know the answer:  vote on optical-scan paper ballots.  (My written testimony clarifies this statement.)  The voter fills in the bubble next to the name of their preferred candidate, then takes this paper ballot to the scanner—right there in the precinct—and feeds it in.  That opscan voting machine has a computer in it, and we can’t 100% prevent the computer from being hacked, but that very paper ballot marked by the voter drops into a sealed ballot box under the opscan machine.  Those ballots can be recounted by hand, in a way we can trust.

Unfortunately, there are still about 10 states that primarily use paperless touchscreen voting computers.  There’s no paper ballot to recount.  After the voter touches the screen, we have to rely on the computer—that is, we have to rely on whatever program is installed in the computer that day—to print out the true totals when the polls close.

So what must we do?  In the near term, we must not connect the voting machines to the Internet.  The same goes for those computers used to prepare the electronic ballot definition files before each election, that are used to program the voting machines—that is, we must not connect the voting machines even indirectly to the Internet.  Many able and competent election administrators already follow this “best practice.”  I hope that all 9000 counties and states that run elections follow this practice, and other security best practices, but it’s hard to tell whether they all do.

These and other best practices can help protect against hacking of voting machines by people in other countries through the Internet.  But they can’t protect us from mistakes, software bugs, miscalibration, insider hacking, or against local criminals with access to the machines before or after elections.  So what we must do as soon as possible after November is to adopt nationwide what 40 states have already done: paper ballots, marked by the voter, countable by computer but recountable by hand.

In 2000 we all saw what a disastrously unreliable technology those punch-card ballots were.  So in 2002 the Congress outlawed punch-card ballots, and that was very appropriate.  I strongly recommend that the Congress seek to ensure the elimination of paperless “touchscreen” voting machines, immediately after this November’s election.

Which voting machines can be hacked through the Internet?

Over 9000 jurisdictions (counties and states) in the U.S. run elections with a variety of voting machines: optical scanners for paper ballots, and direct-recording “touchscreen” machines.  Which ones of them can be hacked to make them cheat, to transfer votes from one candidate to another?

The answer:  all of them.  An attacker with physical access to a voting machine can install fraudulent vote-miscounting software.  I’ve demonstrated this on one kind of machine, others have demonstrated it on other machines.  It’s a general principle about computers: they run whatever software is installed at the moment.

So let’s ask:

  1. Which voting machines can be hacked from anywhere in the world, through the Internet?  
  2. Which voting machines have other safeguards, so we can audit or recount the election to get the correct result even if the machine is hacked?

The answers, in summary:

  1. Older machines (Shouptronic, AVC Advantage, AccuVote OS, Optech-III Eagle) can be hacked by anyone with physical access; newer machines (almost anything else in use today) can be hacked by anyone with physical access, and are vulnerable to attacks from the Internet.
  2. Optical scan machines, even though they can be hacked, allow audits and recounts of the paper ballots marked by the voters.  This is a very important safeguard.  Paperless touchscreen machines have no such protection.  “DRE with VVPAT” machines, i.e. touchscreens that print on paper (that the voter can inspect under glass while casting the ballot) are “in between” regarding this safeguard.

The most widely used machine that fails #1 and #2 is the AccuVote TS, used throughout the state of Georgia, and in some counties in other states.

[Read more…]

A response to the National Association of Secretaries of State

NASS logo
Election administration in the United States is largely managed state-by-state, with a small amount of Federal involvement. This generally means that each state’s chief election official is that state’s Secretary of State. Their umbrella organization, the National Association of Secretaries of State, consequently has a lot of involvement in voting issues, and recently issued a press release concerning voting system security that was remarkably erroneous. What follows is a point-by-point commentary on their press release.

To date, there has been no indication from national security agencies to states that any specific or credible threat exists when it comes to cyber security and the November 2016 general election.

Unfortunately, we now know that it appears that Russia broke into the DNC’s computers and leaked emails with clear intent to influence the U.S. presidential election (see, e.g., the New York Times’s article on July 26: “Why Security Experts Think Russia was Behind the DNC Breach”). It’s entirely reasonable to extrapolate from this that they may be willing to conduct further operations with the same goals, meaning that it’s necessary to take appropriate steps to mitigate against such attacks, regardless of the level of specificity of available intel.

However, as a routine part of any election cycle, Secretaries of State and their local government counterparts work with federal partners, such as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to maintain rigorous testing and certification standards for voting systems. Risk management practices and controls, including the physical handling and storage of voting equipment, are important elements of this work.

Expert analyses of current election systems (largely conducted ten years ago in California, Ohio, and Florida) found a wide variety of security problems. While some states have responded to these issues by replacing the worst paperless electronic voting systems, other states, including several “battleground” states, continue to use unacceptably insecure systems.

State election offices also proactively utilize election IT professionals and security experts to regularly review, identify and address any vulnerabilities with systems, including voter registration databases and election night reporting systems (which display the unofficial tallies that are ultimately verified via statewide canvassing).

The implication here is that all state election officials have addressed known vulnerabilities. This is incorrect. While some states have been quite proactive, other states have done nothing of the sort.

A national hacking of the election is highly improbable due to our unique, decentralized process.

Security vulnerabilities have nothing to do with probabilities. They instead have to do with a cost/benefit analysis on the part of the attacker. An adversary doesn’t have to attack all 50 states. All they have to do is tamper with the “battleground” states where small shifts in the vote can change the outcome for the whole state.

Each state and locality conducts its own system of voting, complete with standards and security requirements for equipment and software. Most states publicly conduct logic and accuracy testing of their machines prior to the election to ensure that they are working and tabulating properly, then they are sealed until Election Day to prevent tampering.

So-called “logic and accuracy testing” varies from location to location, but most boil down to casting a small number of votes for each candidate, on a handful of machines, and making sure they’re all there in a mock tally. Similarly, local election officials will have procedures in place to make sure machines are properly “zeroed”. Computer scientists refer to these as “sanity tests”, in that if the system fails, then something is obviously broken. If these tests pass, they say nothing about the sort of tampering that a sophisticated nation-state adversary might conduct.

Some election officials conduct more sophisticated “parallel testing”, where some voting equipment is pulled out of general service and is instead set up in a mock precinct, on election day, where mock voters cast seemingly real ballots. These machines would have a harder time distinguishing whether they were in “test” versus “production” conditions. But what happens if the machines fail the parallel test? By then, the election is over, the voters are gone, and there’s potentially no way to reconstruct the intent of the voters.

Furthermore, electronic voting machines are not Internet-based and do not connect to each other online.

This is partially true. Electronic voting systems do connect to one another through in-precinct local networks or through the motion of memory cards of various sorts. They similarly connect to election management systems before the start of the election (when they’re loaded with ballot definitions) and after the end of the election (for backups, recounts, inventory control, and/or being cleared prior to subsequent elections). All of these “touch points” represent opportunities for malware to cross the “air gap” boundaries. We built attacks like these a decade ago as part of the California Top to Bottom Review, showing how malware could spread “virally” to an entire county’s fleet of voting equipment. Attacks like these require a non-trivial up-front engineering effort, plus additional effort for deployment, but these efforts are well within the capabilities of a nation-state adversary.

Following the election, state and local jurisdictions conduct a canvass to review vote counting, ultimately producing the election results that are officially certified. Post-election audits help to further guard against deliberate manipulation of the election, as well as unintentional software, hardware or programming problems.

Post-election audits aren’t conducted at all in some jurisdictions, and would likely be meaningless against the sort of adversary we’re talking about. If a paperless electronic voting system was hacked, there might well be forensic evidence that the attackers left behind, but such evidence would be a challenge to identify quickly, particularly in the charged atmosphere of a disputed election result.

We look forward to continued information-sharing with federal partners in order to evaluate cyber risks, and respond to them accordingly, as part of ongoing state election emergency preparedness planning for November.

“Emergency preparedness” is definitely the proper way to consider the problem. Just as we must have contingency plans for all sorts of natural phenomena, like hurricanes, we must also be prepared for man-made phenomena, where we might be unable to reconstruct an election tally that accurately represents the will of the people.

The correct time to make such plans is right now, before the election. Since it’s far too late to decommission and replace our insecure equipment, we must instead plan for rapid responses, such as quickly printing single-issue paper ballots, bringing voters back to the polls, and doing it all over again. If such plans are made now, their very existence changes the cost/benefit equation for our adversaries, and will hopefully dissuade these adversaries from acting.