July 14, 2020

Safely opening PDFs received by e-mail (or fax?!)

Many election administrators in U.S. states and counties need to receive and open PDF files from voters. Some of these administrators receive these PDFs as e-mail attachments. These may be filled-out voter registration forms, or even voted ballots from UOCAVA (overseas and military) voters. We all know that malware can lurk in e-mail attachments; how can those election officials protect themselves from being hacked?

Internet return of voted ballots is inherently insecure; that’s a separate issue and I’ll discuss it below. For now, how can one safely open a PDF attachment?

I discussed this question with Dan Guido, cybersecurity consultant and CEO of trailofbits.com. The safe way to view a PDF is inside the Chrome or Firefox browser. Printing a PDF directly from Chrome (or Firefox) to your printer is reasonably safe. The unsafe way to view a PDF is with your favorite PDF-viewer app such as Adobe Reader.

The reason is simple: Google (for Chrome) and Mozilla (for Firefox) have put enormous effort into making their PDF viewers safe, putting them inside a “sandbox” that the hackers can’t get out of — and they’ve largely succeeded.

The PDF file format has hundreds of obscure features and complex functionality that are not needed for simple documents. Chrome and Firefox don’t bother to understand the obscure features: they concentrate on getting the common features displayed safely. On the other hand, Adobe Reader does handle all the features of PDF; that’s a much larger thing to get perfectly right, and (perhaps) security is not Adobe’s highest priority.

Sometimes that means that Chrome or Firefox don’t render your document properly; but this is unlikely to be a problem for simple documents such as voter-registration forms or optical-scan ballots.

In some ways that’s a bit disappointing. I like Adobe Reader’s navigation and document-viewing facilities much more than I like the browser’s built-in PDF display. But I should be careful to use Adobe tools only for documents whose provenance I know, or that have been otherwise vetted.

If you do save your PDF to a file, and are tempted to open it later: again, you can use Chrome or Firefox to open it. (See also: PDF.js) If you want to open it in a full-featured (but less secure) tool, first use a PDF “triage tool” such as PDFid, which will scan the file and tell you if anything looks suspicious.

Is it safe to use Fax?

Many jurisdictions still permit (or require) forms and ballots to be sent to them by Fax. Is that safe?

Once upon a time, a “fax machine” was connected to a “land line” that went through the “phone network.” How safe that was in 1985 is no longer relevant today, when nobody has a “fax machine” and the “phone network” is the Internet.

Most voters, and many election administrators, use on-line fax services such as HelloFax. The voter logs in and upload a PDF file; the fax service converts it to a fax-format bitstream and sends it into the part of the Internet called “the phone system”; the receiver logs in (perhaps to a different on-line fax service) and downloads a PDF file that has been converted from the bitstream.

This has so many points of insecurity: the sender’s online-fax service company may be more or less vulnerable to hackers (or insiders); the receiver’s online-fax service, ditto; and the fax-format bitstream is transmitted unencrypted, unauthenticated across the phone network.

In contrast, e-mail can be a lot more secure than that. If you use a major e-mail provider (such as gmail, Microsoft, fastmail) that knows what it’s doing; and if the recipient also uses a reputable e-mail provider, then: your e-mail is uploaded encrypted (and authenticated) to an SMTP server, which goes encrypted (and authenticated) to another SMTP server, which is downloaded encrypted (and authenticated) to the recipient’s mail reader. The vast majority of Internet e-mail traffic is protected this way.

So e-mail your stuff, don’t fax it.

Is e-mail secure? Can we vote that way?

If e-mail is so much more secure than it was 30 years ago, can we safely vote by e-mail?

Unfortunately, no. Even if Internet messages (by e-mail or other protocols) are safe in transmission, the biggest security lapses are in the server computers and especially in the client’s (voter’s) computers. Hackers who can penetrate the security of those systems can change votes before they’re sent, or after they’re received (but before they’re counted).

Furthermore, e-mail is sent from the voter’s computer to the SMTP server (at Google, or Microsoft, or fastmail…) where it is unencrypted and reencrypted for sending to the receiver’s SMTP server (at Microsoft, or fastmail, or Google, …). It’s like, you mail your absentee ballot to your landlord, who takes it out of its envelope, puts it in a fresh envelope, and mails it to an election official. Even if we trust our landlord (and I expect Google, Microsoft, and fastmail are doing a good job), should we need to trust this intermediary? The citizenry elect their government; we don’t entrust this process to a few big tech companies.

And finally, 6% of email (that’s either outbound or inbound from gmail.com) is still unencrypted–that is, insecure. Six percent may not seem like a lot, but it’s millions of users.

Is e-mail voter-registration secure enough?

Internet return of voted ballots, which is not securable by any known technology. But voter-registration can reasonably be done by e-mail: the voter sends in a form, perhaps a scan-to-PDF of their printed and signed registration form. The reason this can work, when it can’t work for voted ballots, is the ability to audit the individual transaction: after a few days, the voter can check the status of their registration with the election official, or the election official can contact the voter to check up. So even if there’s hacking in the client or server computer, it can be detected and corrected. With ballots, we have the secret ballot: nobody is supposed to learn how you voted. Without the ability to check and correct later, “did my ballot get counted for the person I voted for?”, internet voting is insecurable.

Democracy Live internet voting: unsurprisingly insecure, and surprisingly insecure

The OmniBallot internet voting system from Democracy Live finds surprising new ways to be insecure, in addition to the usual (severe, fatal) insecurities common to all internet voting systems.

There’s a very clear scientific consensus that “the Internet should not be used for the return of marked ballots” because “no known technology guarantees the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the Internet.” That’s from the National Academies 2018 consensus study report, consistent with May 2020 recommendations from the U.S. EAC/NIST/FBI/CISA.

So it is no surprise that this internet voting system (Washington D.C., 2010) is insecure , and this one (Estonia 2014) is insecure, and that internet voting system is insecure (Australia 2015) , and this one (Sctyl, Switzerland 2019), and that one (Voatz, West Virginia 2020)

A new report by Michael Specter (MIT) and Alex Halderman (U. of Michigan) demonstrates that the OmniBallot internet voting system from Democracy Live is fatally insecure. That by itself is not surprising, as “no known technology” could make it secure. What’s surprising is all the unexpected insecurities that Democracy Live crammed into OmniBallot–and the way that Democracy Live skims so much of the voter’s private information.

OmniBallot has three modes of use:  (1) internet download of unvoted absentee ballots to print at home and mark by hand; (2) using the voter’s home computer to mark ballot selections, for printing ballots at home to be mailed back; and (3) “online voting,” which is the internet return of voted ballots as PDF files.  

OmniBallot’s online voting feature (internet return of voted ballots as PDF files) “uses a simplistic approach” and “as a result, votes returned online can be altered, potentially without detection, by a wide range of parties,” including either insiders or hackers. Not surprising: this is the standard insecurity of online voting systems: hackers can steal votes (in a “scalable” way, according to the EAC/NIST/FBI/CISA report).

Surprise! Insiders at any of four private companies (Democracy Live, Google, Amazon, Cloudflare), or any hackers who manage to hack into these companies, can steal votes. That’s because Democracy Live doesn’t run its own servers–it uses all of these services in building its own product. Well, in hindsight, not so surprising–this is the way modern internet services work.

OmniBallot has a mode of use in which the voter uses her home computer to mark a ballot, then print that ballot as an optical-scan absentee ballot to be mailed in. In this mode it appears that the voter’s ballot selections (votes) are not being sent over the internet. Surprise! Even in this mode of use, the OmniBallot system “send[s] the voter’s identity and ballot selections to Democracy Live” (and Amazon). 

Not a surprise: Even when OmniBallot is used only for downloading unvoted absentee ballots to print at home and mark by hand, “there are important security and privacy risks …  including the risk that ballots could be … subtly manipulated in ways that cause them to be counted incorrectly.” It’s well understood that a hacker could alter the PDF file to rearrange where the fill-in-the-ovals are, so an optical-scanner would count a vote for Smith as a vote for Jones. I’ll discuss this further in the comments below.

And finally, Surprise! “In all modes of operation, Democracy Live receives a wealth of sensitive personally identifiable information: voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, physical locations, party affiliations, and partial social security numbers. When ballots are marked or returned online, the company also receives voters’ ballot selections, and it collects a browser fingerprint during online voting. This information would be highly valuable for political purposes or for election interference, as it could be used to target ads or disinformation campaigns based on the voter’s fine-grained preferences. Nevertheless, OmniBallot has no posted privacy policy, and it is unclear whether there are any effective legal limitations on the company’s use of the data.

This is shocking: it’s bad enough that companies like Cambridge Analytica gathered huge amounts of personal information on individual voters for the purposes of microtargeting disinformation–they took that data from people who made the mistake of signing up for Facebook. But the citizen who just wants to exercise their right to vote–for the State to force that voter to surrender personally identifying data to a private company with no apparent restrictions on its use–goes beyond even the Facebook scandal. No state should participate in such a scheme.

Emergency Motion to Stop Internet Voting in NJ

with Penny Venetis

On May 4th, 2020 a press release from mobilevoting.org announced that New Jersey would allow online voting in a dozen school-board elections scheduled for May 12th. On May 11, the Rutgers International Human Rights Clinic filed an emergency motion to stop internet voting in New Jersey. During a conference on May 18 with Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, the State notified the court that it had abandoned its plans to use internet voting for the upcoming July 7 primary election. 

The Clinic, led by Rutgers Law School professor Penny Venetis, argued that the Democracy Live online voting system (that New Jersey planned to use) violated a broad court order issued in March 2010 by Judge Linda Feinberg.  That order was issued in the Clinic’s case Gusciora v. Corzine, which challenged paperless voting machines as unconstitutional.  

The March 2010 court order stated clearly and unequivocally that no part of any New Jersey voting system could be connected to the internet, under any circumstance.  New Jersey has a continuing obligation to ensure that the order is followed, and that all voting-related software is “hardened” on a regular basis.

Democracy Live’s voting portal permits voters to transmit their cast ballot, via the internet, to county election officials, for tabulation.  Despite the state’s assertions to the contrary, it is an internet-based system that violates the 2010 order in Gusciora.  Princeton Professor Andrew Appel filed a certification (for the emergency motion) discussing the overwhelming scientific consensus that internet based voting is insecure.  The IHR Clinic also provided the court with scientific reports, a US Department of Homeland Security report, and a letter from the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.  Those documents all discussed the insecurity of the Democracy Live system (or any system with online ballot return).  Susan Greenhalgh of Free Speech for People, participated in negotiations with the State.  The Washington Post covered the lawsuit favorably on May 14th.  Common Cause, the Brennan Center, and Verified Voting wrote New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on May 15th, in support of the IHR Clinic’s position.  

In the hearing on May 18th with Judge Jacobson, the State agreed not to use online voting in the July 7th primary elections, but did not commit to abandoning Democracy Live’s online portal for the November 2020 Presidential election.

Judge Jacobson ordered the IHR Clinic and the NJ Attorney General’s office to file a joint document by June 8, 2020 that lays out the resolution of the May 11th court filing.    As a result, the court will keep the IHR Clinic’s matter open, in the event it needs to issue a ruling to enforce the 2010 order that bans internet use for voting in New Jersey.