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How to Steal an Election by Hacking the Vote - Jon "Hannibal" Stokes

Written by Subject: Voting - Election Integrity
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

One bad apple... -

What if I told you that it would take only one person—one highly motivated, but only moderately skilled bad apple, with either authorized or unauthorized access to the right company's internal computer network—to steal a statewide election? You might think I was crazy, or alarmist, or just talking about something that's only a remote, highly theoretical possibility. You also probably would think I was being really over-the-top if I told you that, without sweeping and very costly changes to the American electoral process, this scenario is almost certain to play out at some point in the future in some county or state in America, and that after it happens not only will we not have a clue as to what has taken place, but if we do get suspicious there will be no way to prove anything. You certainly wouldn't want to believe me, and I don't blame you.

So what if I told you that one highly motivated and moderately skilled bad apple could cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to America's private sector by unleashing a Windows virus from the safety of his parents' basement, and that many of the victims in the attack would never know that they'd been compromised? Before the rise of the Internet, this scenario also might've been considered alarmist folly by most, but now we know that it's all too real.

Thanks the recent and rapid adoption of direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines in states and counties across America, the two scenarios that I just outlined have now become siblings (perhaps even fraternal twins) in the same large, unhappy family of information security (infosec) challenges. Our national election infrastructure is now largely an information technology infrastructure, so the problem of keeping our elections free of vote fraud is now an information security problem. If you've been keeping track of the news in the past few years, with its weekly litany of high-profile breeches in public- and private-sector networks, then you know how well we're (not) doing on the infosec front.

Over the course of almost eight years of reporting for Ars Technica, I've followed the merging of the areas of election security and information security, a merging that was accelerated much too rapidly in the wake of the 2000 presidential election. In all this time, I've yet to find a good way to convey to the non-technical public how well and truly screwed up we presently are, six years after the Florida recount. So now it's time to hit the panic button: In this article, I'm going to show you how to steal an election.

Now, I won't be giving you the kind of "push this, pull here" instructions for cracking specific machines that you can find scattered all over the Internet, in alarmingly lengthy PDF reports that detail vulnerability after vulnerability and exploit after exploit. (See the bibliography at the end of this article for that kind of information.) And I certainly won't be linking to any of the leaked Diebold source code, which is available in various corners of the online world. What I'll show you instead is a road map to the brave new world of electronic election manipulation, with just enough nuts-and-bolts detail to help you understand why things work the way they do.

Along the way, I'll also show you just how many different hands touch these electronic voting machines before and after a vote is cast, and I'll lay out just how vulnerable a DRE-based elections system is to what e-voting researchers have dubbed "wholesale fraud," i.e., the ability of an individual or a very small group to steal an entire election by making subtle changes in the right places.

So let's get right down to business and meet the tools that we're going to use to flip a race in favor of our preferred candidate.

Note: I'm not in any way encouraging anyone to actually go out and steal an election. This article is intended solely as a guide to the kinds of information and techniques that election thieves already have available, and not as an incitement to or an aid for committing crimes.

(You have to be subscribed to this Computer Geek website in order to get access to the PDF of the instructions)

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