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Princeton report slams Diebold touch-screen systems

Researchers created vote-stealing code; Diebold disputes claim

By Marc L. Songini
September 14, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A recently released report by researchers at Princeton University alleges more security flaws in Diebold Election Systems Inc.'s touch-screen voting systems.

The school's Center for Information Technology Policy, which studies computer technology's effect on society, posted the report online yesterday. Computer science researchers at the university said they were able to create vote-stealing code that can be installed in a minute on Diebold hardware and change vote counts undetected, according to a statement from Princeton. "We have created and analyzed the code in the spirit of helping to guide public officials so that they can make wise decisions about how to secure elections," Edward Felton, the director of the Center for Information Technology Policy, said in the statement. "We found that the machine is vulnerable to a number of extremely serious attacks that undermine the accuracy and credibility of the vote counts it produces."

The devices are also susceptible to computer viruses "that can spread themselves automatically and invisibly from machine to machine during normal pre- and postelection activity," he claimed.

For its part, Diebold hotly disputed the report. According to David Byrd, president of Diebold Election Systems, the TS machine used by the Princeton researchers had security software that was two generations old and is no longer even in use.

"Normal security procedures were ignored," he said in a statement yesterday. "Numbered security tape, 18 enclosure screws and numbered security tags were destroyed or missing so that the researchers could get inside the unit. A virus was introduced to a machine that is never attached to a network."

Byrd said the TS has advanced security features, including Advanced Encryption Standard 128-bit data encryption, digitally signed memory card data, Secure Sockets Layer data encryption for transmitted results and dynamic passwords.

He added that "by any standard -- academic or common sense -- the study is unrealistic and inaccurate."

The study was made public at the same time Maryland elections officials are struggling to count votes in the wake of problems related to touch-screen systems in the state's Tuesday primary. Those problems arose when voter access cards needed for the machines were not distributed to polling places, casuing delays in voting.

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