Can You Hack the Vote?

Electronic voting systems have drawn fire from courts, lawmakers, and citizens groups--and now they're under attack by hackers.

It's an organized assault, too. E-voting technology expert Rebecca Mercuri, a Harvard research fellow who has been outspoken in her opposition to such systems, has issued a "Hack the Vote" challenge, trying to illustrate what she calls their unreliability and vulnerability.

She unveiled the so-called Mercuri Challenge at the recent Black Hat Briefings and Defcon 12 security conferences.

Preelection Action Urged

Mercuri suggests electronic voting machines be hacked during their preelection testing, so officials will abandon them before an actual election.

"People in the election community say this technology is bulletproof," Mercuri says. "It's not." She especially opposes use of electronic voting technology in its current state, which does not allow for a verifiable backup.

"I'm not asking anyone to break any laws, we just want the opportunity to hack e-voting systems to prove that it can or cannot be done," she says.

Mercuri says the likeliest e-voting fraud would involve unauthorized remote access to voting machines, when a hacker manipulates results; or backdoor access to voting systems by workers with approved access but their own agenda. She described her concerns at a Defcon keynote address, "Hack the Vote."

As part of her challenge, Mercuri is calling on e-voting system vendors VoteHere and Advanced Voting Solutions to supply any challengers "full specifications" of their voting system for review. The first person to undetectably change vote tallies can claim $10,000 from a separate challenge.

Who's Got the Cash?

That $10,000 is being offered by noted e-voting proponent and Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Michael Shamos. His $10,000 bet, the Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) Hacking Challenge contends no one can hack undetectably into a DRE voting machine.

"It is impossible to tamper with e-voting systems without being detected," he said in a telephone interview countering Mercuri's claims. Shamos says no one has ever taken him up on the challenge because, as he puts it, "the fundamental system is unhackable."

Shamos recently added another twist to his challenge. Takers must fork over $5000 to be held in escrow for Shamos. If the contestant fails to undetectably tamper with the e-voting results, Shamos keeps the $5000.

Both Shamos and Mercuri acknowledge they are using the same vehicle while on opposite sides of the e-vote debate. Mercuri says her public challenge is meant to draw attention to Shamos's DRE Hacking Challenge.

However, a growing number of e-voting naysayers agree with much of what Mercuri claims. For example, in April California banned the use of touch-screen voting machines in a handful of counties until it could be proven the systems are secure and bug-free.

Rebuttals, Responses

Tom Mereckis, head of marketing for VoteHere, says he is "puzzled" by Mercuri's challenge because VoteHere makes full specifications of its voting systems available to anyone.

"Our full source code and cryptography specs have already been published," Mereckis says. "We did answer Mercuri's challenge last month on our Web site."

Conversely, the president of Advanced Voting Solutions says he has no intention of ever releasing the proprietary workings of its voting systems.

"We aren't interested in participating in a hacking carnival sideshow," Howard Van Pelt says. For the same reasons that American Airlines and Bank of America do not make the full specifications of their systems available to the public, Advanced Voting Solutions doesn't either, he adds.

Mercuri says VoteHere forces anyone who wants to test its system sign a restrictive licensing agreement that makes it a felony to examine its systems and share that data with the public. "That's not what we consider open and available," Mercuri says.

"There is nothing in the licensing agreement that you can't find bugs and talk about them," VoteHere's Mereckis says.

Prospective contestants seemed ambivalent about the e-voting hacking challenge.

"Sounds like a good way to land in prison," said one Defcon attendee who preferred not to give his name. Other attendees said hackers are always interested in a challenge--with $10,000 riding on it or not.

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