TOPICS > Politics

Internet Voting: Will Democracy or Hackers Win?

February 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
While it seems like everything can be done online these days, that's not actually the case when it comes to elections. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien explores the security, logistical and secrecy challenges of Internet voting.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now another kind of election story, as both parties ramp up their efforts to get voters to the polls this fall.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien explores why most people still can’t vote online.

NATALIE TENNANT, West Virginia secretary of state: We don’t have archives. There are some secretaries around the country that have archives under their statutory duty. We don’t have that.

MILES O’BRIEN: Inside Natalie Tennant’s vault in the West Virginia Capitol . . .

All handwritten stuff and it’s stamped and everything. Times have changed, huh?

. . . you will find the bane of every secretary of state of every state in the country: paper, lots of old, musty, yellowing paper.

Managing it all is a huge sap on time, money and efficiency. Since the Democrat was elected the secretary of state here three years ago, Natalie Tennant has been determined to find a better way.

NATALIE TENNANT: As soon as I came in, I wanted to have an atmosphere where we are open to ideas.

MILES O’BRIEN: And that is how Natalie Tennant, the first female student to be selected mascot of the West Virginia University Mountaineers, finds herself leading another kind of charge, a controversial, critics say quixotic, push to bring U.S. voting to the Internet.

Can you imagine then a day when all of us are voting online one way or another?

NATALIE TENNANT: I could imagine a day. I can’t tell you when that day is.

MILES O’BRIEN: Should it happen?

NATALIE TENNANT: I think that folks should have the opportunity. Well, I think that you use what we have. I mean, look at what we’re using now.

MILES O’BRIEN: She didn’t have to look far to see the problem. Her husband, Erik Wells, a Democratic state senator and a U.S. Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, found it all but impossible to vote when he was deployed this past year in Afghanistan.

ERIK WELLS, D-W.Va., state senator: The ironic part is, I’m in Afghanistan trying to help a fledgling democracy, and I have difficulty back in my own democracy getting the opportunity to let me know how I need to vote.

MILES O’BRIEN: Commander Wells ended up faxing in his marked ballot, relinquishing his constitutional right to secrecy. There was no other way he would be counted in time.

ERIK WELLS: So, I think we have to figure out ways that how do you allow somebody to vote in an electronic age in a way that you can also keep their anonymity.

MILES O’BRIEN: The plight of deployed U.S. military personnel is what prompted Natalie Tennant to run a pilot online program in 2010 that allowed 179 West Virginians in uniform in harm’s way to vote as easily as if they were shopping on Amazon.

NATALIE TENNANT: I am proud of and I feel very secure in what we did.

MILES O’BRIEN: How can you be certain?

NATALIE TENNANT: I can be certain that I know that we have no breach in our votes. And I’m certain in the reaction that I received from the military members who are out there risking their lives, who want to take advantage of something like this to be able to have their votes counted.

ERIK WELLS: Good morning. I’m Erik Wells.

NATALIE TENNANT: And I’m Natalie Tennant.

MILES O’BRIEN: Natalie and Erik are comfortable in the limelight. Before politics, they used to be a local news anchor team.

MAN: Secretary, welcome.

NATALIE TENNANT: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

MILES O’BRIEN: But as she traveled the country, evangelizing for online voting, she ran into a buzz saw she didn’t expect.

RONALD L. RIVEST, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: I like to coin words. I am a fan of Stephen Colbert. And so I have coined the word “oxytopian” to talk about this dream of a secure Internet voting. I think that’s — secure Internet voting is a bit like the phrase safe cigarettes.

MILES O’BRIEN: At this panel talk in Connecticut, she got an earful from some of the world’s top computer security experts.

MAN: Even securing the vote within the confines of polling place voting is very, very difficult.

J. ALEX HALDERMAN, University of Michigan: And when you move to the context of Internet voting, the problems are magnified maybe a hundredfold. It’s much more difficult.

MILES O’BRIEN: That is computer science assistant professor Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan . . .

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: This is running the same software as the real D.C. election trial.

MILES O’BRIEN: . . . famous among hackers for making mincemeat of an online voting scheme planned by the District of Columbia.

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: This is what a voter would see if they were using the D.C. system.

MILES O’BRIEN: The D.C. Elections Board had hoped to use online voting in the general election in 2010. A few weeks before the election, officials issued an open challenge to hackers to try and breach the security of the voting system.

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: All right, let’s introduce ourselves.

MAN: I’m Eric.

WOMAN: I’m Dawn.

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: I’m Alex Halderman.

SCOTT WOLCHOK, University of Michigan: I’m Scott Wolchok.

MILES O’BRIEN: Professor Halderman and some of his grad students took the bait and got busy, documenting their exploit in detail.

He has not allowed this video to be broadcast until now. Within 36 hours, they were in total control of the elections server. They changed votes to elect science fiction computers and robots, downloaded a file with all the real voter passwords, and rigged it so whenever someone submitted a ballot, they heard the Michigan fight song, “The Victors,” after a 15-second delay.

(SINGING)

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s tantamount to spiking the football, isn’t it?

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: Well, we wanted to strike a balance between subtlety and overtness here, but . . .

MILES O’BRIEN: Subtle?

(LAUGHTER)

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: It’s what the 15-second delay is for.

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh, I see.

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Here’s how they did it.

Before uploading a ballot for submission, they changed the name of the PDF file to include a command the server recognized. After uploading the doctored ballot, the server saw the command, responded accordingly, and they were in.

In the hacker’s lexicon, this is known as a shell injection attack, a well-known tactic.

MAN: Wow.

MAN: That’s awesome.

J. ALEX HALDERMAN: All we had to do was find one vulnerability in order to take control of the system and change all of the votes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Paul Stenbjorn was the D.C. election official forced to cancel the online voting scheme after the Halderman hack.

PAUL STENBJORN, Scytl: I’m not embarrassed about it. I think what we did was, we achieved the end result. Obviously, the software could have been written better. And, obviously, next-generation solutions are going to be stronger, more robust than the one that was deployed in D.C.

MILES O’BRIEN: Stenbjorn is now director of U.S. operations for a Spanish company called Scytl, a leading maker of online voting systems. The company claims customers around the world.

PAUL STENBJORN: The voting public expects — since they can conduct their banking online and they can pay their taxes online, why can’t they cast their ballots online?

MILES O’BRIEN: In Washington, there is a strong push to make that possible for the millions of deployed troops and expatriates. The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act signed into law in 2009 promised to make it easier for them to participate in U.S. elections using the latest technology.

But for MOVE supporters, it’s been a long battle.

BOB CAREY, Federal Voting Assistance Program: I think it’s going to be five or six years before we’re even close to a point where we think that we could deploy a Department of Defense system in order to be able to meet our legislative mandate.

We’re trying to make it so you don’t have to know — you don’t have to a master’s in election administration in order to be able to fill out your form.

MILES O’BRIEN: Bob Carey heads the Pentagon’s Federal Voting Assistance Program. He remembers how hard it was to vote when he was on active duty as a Naval aviator. He says computer security experts who oppose Internet voting — and nearly all of them do — are setting the bar too high.

BOB CAREY: So there is significant risk in the current system. And to accept no risk in future electronic systems simply because you don’t like the fact that there may be risk I think is unfair to those military voters.

MILES O’BRIEN: It may seem odd at first, but, as it happens, the most committed supporters of paper ballots are the best brains in the world of computer technology.

David Wagner is a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2004, he co-authored a detailed study into a system to allow deployed troops to vote online. The report to the Pentagon prompted a hasty cancellation of the plan.

DAVID WAGNER, University of California, Berkeley: There was no way to guarantee your vote would be counted correctly, that if someone were to hack the central computer system, then someone could change votes, and there might be no way to detect that kind of election stealing.

So, I don’t think any of the voting system vendors out there right now has a solution that ensures — that’s proof against hacking or that ensures that we can detect hacking.

MILES O’BRIEN: And the online security threat has only become more ominous in recent years. If hackers can routinely breach heavily fortified servers at places like Google, Lockheed Martin, Visa, and Sony, which employ legions of computer security experts, what hope would a local election commissioner have of doing any better?

Not much, according to computer scientist David Jefferson, chairman of a non-profit called Verified Voting, its mission, to keep the paper in our polling.

Is there any doubt in your mind that the elections would become the target of a coordinated attack?

DAVID JEFFERSON, Verified Voting: See, I think a U.S. election would be a very rich target for any number of classes of attackers.

There could, of course, be the isolated individual somewhere in the world who wants, for self-aggrandizement reasons, to attack a U.S. election. But other foreign nation states who are rivals of the United States might want to surreptitiously change the results of a U.S. election somewhere.

MILES O’BRIEN: For now, online voting advocates are settling for half-a-loaf. This year, the Federal Voting Assistance Program is delivering ballots to U.S. voters overseas electronically, but they have to print them out, mark them and return them by mail.

Scytl has sold a similar system for domestic absentee voters in a dozen states, faster, much more secure, but short of the Holy Grail — iPad elections, if you will.

Extremely intuitive, I would say.

NATALIE TENNANT: Right. See?

MILES O’BRIEN: It may be a distant dream right now, but people like Natalie Tennant are convinced it is a just a matter of time before online voting becomes a reality in the U.S.

NATALIE TENNANT: And you can’t tell me that we can’t continue to use these technologies to move this forward and continue to let people be able to vote on their own. And if I’m the one who has to take the shots on it, I will be the one to take the shots.

MILES O’BRIEN: No one wants to disenfranchise the people who take the real shots for our country, but a rush to bring our voting online might invite another kind of national security threat.