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Panel members find security flaws in Internet voting system

'A dedicated and experienced hacker could subvert the election rather easily,' said one expert

January 22, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A federally funded Internet-based voting system scheduled for use in the 2004 primary and general elections has several unresolvable security vulnerabilities that leave it open to widespread vote tampering and privacy breaches.
That is the opinion of four members of a 10-person peer review group assigned to identify potential flaws in the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) system being built for the U.S. Department of Defense's Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). The system is being developed as part of a government initiative to make it easier for U.S. armed force personnel, the Merchant Marines and overseas civilians to vote.
The SERVE system is expected to be used by absentee voters from 50 counties in seven states and is designed to handle up to 100,000 votes.
According to the panel members, who publicly aired their concerns yesterday, the risks are so serious that it is recommending that further development of SERVE be immediately shut down and not attempted again until "both the Internet and the world's home computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned."
The problems lie in the inherent insecurities associated with Internet and PC-based systems, said David Wagner, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the security experts assigned to review the prototype SERVE system.
These include viruses and worms, denial-of-service attacks and Web-site spoofing, Wagner said. An attack on the main SERVE system or any of the PCs being used by voters, using any of these methods, could seriously compromise the results, Wagner said.
"SERVE is susceptible to large-scale election fraud that could be launched from outside the reach of U.S. law and go completely undetected," he said.
For instance, it would be relatively easy for malicious hackers to insert spoofed Web pages that appear to belong to the SERVE system but are actually designed to alter votes or prevent them from being cast. A voter using a PC infected with a virus or worm could easily jeopardize the integrity of the system, Wagner said. And the particularly dangerous part is that such hacks could be carried out without ever being detected.
"I think that a dedicated and experienced hacker could subvert the election rather easily," said Avi Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the security experts that reviewed SERVE. "I don't think that Internet-based voting such as SERVE can be made secure enough for use until we can develop computer systems that are not vulnerable to viruses and Trojan horses, and until we can develop an Internet that is resistant to denial-of-service attacks."
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