Argonne researchers 'hack' Diebold e-voting system

Breaking into system using a $10 electronic component was 'ridiculously easy,' says official at national researchlab

Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory this week showed how an electronic voting machine model that's expected to be widely used to tally votes in the 2012 elections can be easily hacked using inexpensive, widely-available electronic components.

Roger Johnston, head of the Vulnerability Assessment Team at the U.S. Department of Energy's science and engineering reseaech lab, said the hack, which requires about $25 and very little technical expertise, would let cybercriminals "flip" votes gathered on Diebold Accuvote TS machines and change election results without raising any suspicion.

Johnston and his team have long warned about vulnerabilities in e-voting machines. And two years ago, the team demonstrated how a Sequoia touch screen e-voting machine could be similarly manipulated using cheap components.

The latest research was first reported by the Salon news site.

In the latest experiment, the Argonne researchers showed how a Diebold Accuvote TS touch screen voting machine can be compromised by inserting a man-in-the middle electronic component to intercept the vote cast by a voter and change it before it is recorded by the system.

The component which is less than half the size of a credit card, was assembled using a $1.29 microprocessor and a homemade circuit board that cost less than $10 to assemble.

The handmade component, which Johnston calls "alien electronics," can be simply plugged into a ribbon cable inside the system. There is no need to solder it on to the system, he noted.

Once installed the "alien electronics" can be controlled remotely from a distance of up to a half mile using an ordinary store-brought $15 remote control.

Johnston said the machine is "incredibly easy to tamper with" because all the crucial electronic components are accessible and can be easily modified. The Accuvote TS' enclosure isn't tamper resistant so hjackers can work on the machine without leaving visible signs, he added.

"All we had to do was find out what the machine was doing in terms of communication," Johnston said. "We just had to understand the various components and how the data was being sent. We needed to understand what signal had to be sent to fool the machine into thinking the voter had touched the screen at a particular location."

The experiment shows that e-voting systems are susceptible to more than just cyberattacks, which get the most attention but are harder to pull off as the perpetrators must have some knowledge of the machine's software, hardware and firmware.

The so-called man-in-the-middle attacks don't require knowledge of the voting machine's proprietary software or hardware, Johnston said. "All you need to do is understand the communication between the different parts of the system. Then you just sit there and listen and do whatever mischief you want to.".

The Diebold intrusion was simpler than the Sequoia hack, which required his team to program the man-in the middle component to get the machine to alert users that their votes had been cast as well as changing the selection, he said.

"[The latest hack] was ridiculously easy. We just had to control the information coming in from the voter. If you send the computer the wrong candidate it simply assumes the data that is being sent is what the voter meant," Johnston said.

And "we could easily tamper with the printer output where the paper record would match what was stored electronically," he added.

Johnston described the microprocessor and the other electronic parts used in the experiment as the sort that can be easily purchased at hobby stores or online. The chip could be programmed by people with only rudimentary skills, he noted.

"We wanted people not to get so hung up on cyber vulnerabilities," and consider other threats as well, he said.

Voting systems are often left unguarded when they are not in use or while in transit and can easily be tampered without anyone knowing about it, he added.

The Diebold Accuvote TS is a direct recording electronic voting (DRE) machine, a type that has long drawn flak because it offers no verifiable paper record. Some experts also consider them unreliable, too hard to audit and prone to all sorts of tampering.

Supporters of DRE systems insist that such concerns are overblown.

According to statistics maintained by election watchdog Verified Voting, several states, including Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey and South Carolina currently use DREs without auditable paper trails.

Several other states, including Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia, use a combination of paperless DREs as well as paper ballots -- 32 states and the District of Columbia have laws that require DREs to be used only with verifiable paper records.

Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, said that the successful hack by Johnston's team is not surprising.

"On a system like the DRE [that was hacked], the voter's choices are marked -- and tabulated -- on the same device, making it software-dependent," Smith said in an email to Computerworld. "This means that should such an attack occur, there's no way to independently verify that the totals are correct [and] represent the intent of the voters."

Electronic Systems & Software, which owns the Diebold voting machine business, could not be reached for comment.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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