February 24, 2018

Internet Voting Security: Wishful Thinking Doesn’t Make It True

[The following is a post written at my invitation by Professor Duncan Buell from the University of South Carolina. Curiously, the poll Professor Buell mentions below is no longer listed in the list of past & present polls on the Courier-Journal site, but is available if you kept the link.]

On Thursday, March 21, in the midst of Kentucky’s deliberation over allowing votes to be cast over the Internet, the daily poll of the Louisville Courier-Journal asked the readers, “Should overseas military personnel be allowed to vote via the Internet?” This happened the day before their editorial rightly argued against Internet voting at this time.

One of the multiple choice answers was “Yes, it can be made just as secure as any balloting system.” This brings up the old adage, “we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts.” The simple fact is that Internet voting is possible – but it is definitely NOT as secure as some other balloting systems. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. Votes cast over the Internet are easily subject to corruption in a number of different ways.

To illustrate this point, two colleagues, both former students, wrote simple software scripts that allowed us to vote multiple times in the paper’s opinion poll. We could have done this with repeated mouse clicks on the website, but the scripts allowed us to do it automatically, and by night’s end we had voted 60,000 times. The poll vendor’s website claims that it blocks repeated voting, but that claim is clearly not entirely true. We did not break in to change the totals. We did not breach the security of the Courier-Journal’s computers. We simply used programs instead of mouse clicks to vote on the poll website itself.
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How much does a botnet cost, and the impact on internet voting

A brief article on how much botnets cost to rent (more detail here) shows differing prices depending on whether you want US machines, European machines, etc. Interestingly, the highest prices go to botnets composed of US machines, presumably because the owners of those machines have more purchasing power and hence stealing credentials from those machines is more valuable. Even so, the value of each machine is quite low – $1000 for 10,000 infected US machines vs. $200 for 10,000 random machines around the world. [Reminds me of my youth where stamp collectors could get packets of random canceled stamps at different prices for “world” vs. specific countries – and most of the stuff in the world packets was trash.]

So what does this have to do with voting? Well, at $1000 for 10,000 infected American machines, the cost is $0.10/machine, and less as the quantity goes up. If I can “buy” (i.e., steal) votes in an internet voting scheme for $0.10 each, that’s far cheaper than any form of advertising. In a hard-fought election I’ll get a dozen fliers for each candidate on the ballot, each of which probably costs close to $1 when considering printing, postage, etc. So stealing votes is arguably 100 times cheaper (assuming that a large fraction of the populace were to vote by internet), even when considering the cost of developing the software that runs in the botnet.

Granted, not every machine in a botnet would be used for voting, even under the assumption that everyone voted by internet. But even if only 10% of them are, the cost per vote is still very “reasonable” under this scenario.

And as John Sebes responded in an earlier draft of this posting:

“You compared digital vote stealing costs to the costs of mere persuasion. What about the costs of analog vote stealing? It’s all anecdotal of course but I do hear that the going rate is about $35 from an absentee vote fraudster to a voter willing to sell a pre-signed absentee ballot kit. Even if the bad guys have to spend 100 of those dimes to get a 1-in-a-hundred machine that’s used for i-voting, that $10 is pretty good because $10 is cheaper than $35 and it and saves the trouble of paying the gatherers who are at risk for a felony.”

My NYT Op-Ed: "Beware the Smart Campaign"

I just published a new opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Beware the Smart Campaign”. I react to the Obama campaign’s successful use of highly quantitative voter targeting that is inspired by “big data” commercial marketing techniques and implemented through state-of-the-art social science knowledge and randomized field experiments.  In the op-ed, I wonder whether the “persuasion score” strategy championed by Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, is on balance good for democracy in the long run.

Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.

For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?

You can read the full article here.

The argument in an op-ed is necessarily concise and leaves out much of the nuance but I think this is an important question facing democracies.  The key to my argument is that big data analytics + better social science isn’t just the same old, same old but poses novel threats to healthy public discourse.  I welcome feedback and comments as we are just starting to grapple with these new developments!