Team hacks voting machine to steal votes

San Diego, CA – A group of computer scientists has shown just how easy it is to hack an electronic voting machine and steal votes.

The team, from the University of California, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University were able to force a Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic voting machine to turn against itself and steal votes. The computer scientists had no access to the source code of the machine, which they bought legally at auction. 
In 2007, Shacham first described return-oriented programming, a systems security exploit that generates malicious behavior by combining short snippets of benign code already present in the system. The team showed that return-oriented programming can be used to execute vote-stealing computations by taking control of a voting machine designed to prevent code injection.

“Voting machines must remain secure throughout their entire service lifetime, and this study demonstrates how a relatively new programming technique can be used to take control of a voting machine that was designed to resist takeover, but that did not anticipate this new kind of malicious programming,” said Hovav Shacham, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

The computer scientists showed that an attacker would need just a few minutes of access to the machine the night before the election in order to take it over and steal votes the following day.

“Based on our understanding of security and computer technology, it looks like paper-based elections are the way to go. Probably the best approach would involve fast optical scanners reading paper ballots. These kinds of paper-based systems are amenable to statistical audits, which is something the election security research community is shifting to,” said Shacham.

Their findings were presented last week at the 2009 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop/Workshop on Trustworthy Elections (EVT/WOTE 2009).