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Internet Voting

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One Last iVoting Consideration: Blockchain

One last item for this series on iVoting that I’m adding by popular inquiry is this new bright shiny object called “Blockchain.” If you’re involved in election technology or computer science in general you’ve probably heard of Blockchain.....

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Can iVoting Change the Electorate?

We produced this series of posts on Internet Voting or “iVoting” and its challenges because there is increasing interest in understanding how to innovate our election infrastructure.  We concede it can be a potential and prospective advance in voting technology—a next frontier of elections for the 21st century if you will. And some even speculate this new way of exercising our civic duty and civil right could expand participation....

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The Technical Challenges Facing iVoting

iVoting faces several technological challenges before it can begin to be implemented.  Most election officials and experts in the field are hesitant or skeptical about implementing iVoting with current Internet and Web technology.  Even when we view iVoting as simply returning a digital absentee ballot or the digital equivalent of voting by mail, as I explain in this installment of my series, there are still substantial innovations required....

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The Challenges of iVoting Implementation

When we last left this discussion, I had laid out a basis for our interest in technologies just over the horizon or "ready next" and in particular the growing interest in smartphone voting. I am essentially carving up a technology backgrounder white paper for easy reading here. Today I help us dive in with a survey of the challenge areas to "Pajama Voting" (I love that phrase)...

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The Moose Lurking in the Room

To hec with the elephant (regardless of who you think will control Congress after election day), the real beast in the room may be a Moose -- Alaska style.  Our CTO notes an article from yesterday that points out how Alaska's close U.S. senatorial race, combined with their allowing ballots to be digitally returned across the Internet, may pose the greatest threat to a derailed election we've seen yet. 

But the real point John makes is that sadly, Alaskan voters may not even be aware of the risks and who in this case is watching over their ballots -- at least those returned in the inherently insecure manner of the Internet, no matter how "secure" the "experts" are claiming the process to be.  If the ballot return system in Alaska were truly as secure as their vendor claims, then Banks would be using their methods, and the massive amounts of hacked customer personal information at major brands this year might have been alleviated.  Have a look and give us your take.

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Online Voting Remains Too Much of a Downside Risk

To our stakeholder community: So now comes another study about online voting. But this one, from a respectable think tank in Washington D.C., shouldn’t make election administrators worry too much. No need to brace for a legislative blunder, so long as this paper is taken seriously, as it should be. On the other hand, there doesn’t yet appear to be a replacement for your DRE machinery for those of you still relying on them.  Here's our "take."

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Ms. Voting Matters' Take: "No Magic Will Bring About Online Voting"

Ms. Voting Matters would really like to wave her magic wand and allow everyone on the planet to cast their votes, securely, with their smart phones, tablets, or laptops. Really truly, I would do it if I could. But I can’t. The Internet of Voting is just not safe and secure enough now, no matter how much we all would wish it so.  Let me share why.

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“Digital Voting”—Don’t believe everything you think

In at recent blog post we examined David Plouffe’s recent Wall Street Journal forward-looking op-ed [paywall] and rebalanced his vision with some practical reality.

Now, let’s turn to Plouffe’s notion of “digital voting.”  Honestly, that phrase is confusing and vague.  We should know: it catalyzed our name change last year from Open Source Digital Voting Foundation (OSDV) to Open Source Election Technology Foundation (OSET).

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Voting Heartburn over “Heartbleed”

Heartbleed is the latest high-profile consumer Internet security  issue, only a few weeks after the “Goto Fail” incident. Both are recently discovered weaknesses in the way that browsers and Web sites interact. In both cases and others, I’ve seen several comments that connect these security issues with Internet voting. But because Heartbleed is pretty darn wicked, I can’t not share my thoughts on how it connects to the work we do in the TrustTheVote project – despite the fact that i-voting is not part of it. (In fact, we have our hands full fixing the many technology gaps in the types of elections that we already have today and will continue to have for the foreseeable future.)

First off, my thanks to a security colleague Matt Bishop who offered an excellent rant(his term not mine!) on Heartbleed and what we can learn from it, and the connection to open source. The net-net is familiar: computers, software, and networks are fundamentally fallible, there will always be bugs and vulnerabilities, and that’s about as non-negotiable as the law of gravity.

Here is my take on how that observation effects elections, and specifically the choice that many many U.S. election officials have made (and which we support), that elections should be based on durable paper ballots that can be routinely audited as a cross check on potential errors in automated ballot counting. It goes like this:

  • Dang it, too many paper ballots with too many contests, to count manually.
  • We’ll have to use computers to count the paper ballots.
  • Dang it, computers and software are inherently untrustworthy.
  • Soooo ….  we’ll use sound statistical auditing methods to manually check the paper ballots, in order to check the work of the machines and detect their malfunctions.

This follows the lessons of the post-hanging-chads era:

  • Dang it, too many paper ballots with too many contests, to count manually.
  • We’ll have to use computers to directly record votes, and ditch the paper ballots.
  • Dang it, computers and software are inherently untrustworthy.
  • Oops, I guess we need the paper ballots after all.

I think that these sequences are very familiar to most readers here, but its worth a reminder now and then from experts on the 3rd point – particularly when the perennial topic of i-voting comes up– because there, the sequence is so similar yet so different:

  • Dang it, voters too far away for us to get their paper ballots in time to count them.
  • We’ll have to use computers and networks to receive digital ballots.
  • Dang it, computers and software and networks are inherently untrustworthy.
  • Soooo …. Oops.

– EJS

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Money Shot: What Does a $40M Bet on Scytl Mean?

…not much we think.

Yesterday’s news of Microsoft co-founder billionaire Paul Allen’s investing $40M in the Spanish election technology company Scytl is validation that elections remain a backwater of innovation in the digital age.

But it is not validation that there is a viable commercial market for voting systems of the size typically attracting venture capitalists; the market is dysfunctional and small and governments continue to be without budget.

And the challenges of building a user-friendly secure online voting system that simultaneously protects the anonymity of the ballot is an interesting problem that only an investor of the stature of Mr. Allen can tackle.

We think this illuminates a larger question:

To what extent should the core technology of the most vital aspect of our Democracy be proprietary and black box, rather than publicly owned and transparent?

To us, that is a threshold public policy question, commercial investment viability issues notwithstanding.

To be sure, it is encouraging to see Vulcan Capital and a visionary like Paul Allen invest in voting technology. The challenges facing a successful elections ecosystem are complex and evolving and we will need the collective genius of the tech industry’s brightest to deliver fundamental innovation.

We at the TrustTheVote Project believe voting is a vital component of our nation’s democracy infrastructure and that American voters expect and deserve a voting experience that’s verifiable, accurate, secure and transparent.  Will Scytl be the way to do so?

The Main Thing

The one thing that stood out to us in the various articles on the investment were Scytl’s comments and assertions of their security with international patents on cryptographic protocols.  We’ve been around the space of INFOSEC for a long time and know a lot of really smart people in the crypto field.  So, we’re curious to learn more about their IP innovations.  And yet that assertion is actually a red herring to us.

Here’s the main thing: transacting ballots over the public packet switched network is not simply about security.   Its also about privacy; that is, the secrecy of the ballot.  Here is an immutable maxim about the digital world of security and privacy: there is an inverse relationship, which holds that as security is increased, privacy must be decreased, and vice-verse.  Just consider any airport security experience.  If you want maximum security then you must surrender a bunch of privacy.  This is the main challenge of transacting ballots across the Internet, and why that transaction is so very different from banking online or looking at your medical record.

And then there is the entire issue of infrastructure.  We continue to harp on this, and still wait for a good answer.  If by their own admissions, the Department of Defense, Google, Target, and dozens of others have challenges securifying their own data centers, how exactly can we be certain that a vendor on a cloud-based service model or an in-house data center of a county or State has any better chance of doing so? Security is an arms race.  Consider the news today about Heartbleed alone.

Oh, and please for the sake of credibility can the marketing machinery stop using the phrase “military grade security?”  There is no such thing.  And it has nothing to do with an increase in the  128-bit encryption standard RSA keys to say, 512 or 1024 bit.  128-bit keys are fine and there is nothing military to it (other than the Military uses it).  Here is an interesting article from some years ago on the sufficiency of current crypto and the related marketing arms race.  Saying “military grade” is meaningless hype.  Besides, the security issues run far beyond the transit of data between machines.

In short, there is much the public should demand to understand from anyone’s security assertions, international patents notwithstanding.  And that goes for us too.

The Bottom Line

While we laud Mr. Allen’s investment in what surely is an interesting problem, no one should think for a moment that this signals some sort of commercial viability or tremendous growth market opportunity.  Nor should anyone assume that throwing money at a problem will necessarily fix it (or deliver us from the backwaters of Government elections I.T.).  Nor should we assume that this somehow validates Scytl’s “model” for “security.”

Perhaps more importantly, while we need lots of attention, research, development and experimentation, the bottom line to us is whether the outcome should be a commercial proprietary black-box result or an open transparent publicly owned result… where the “result” as used here refers to the core technology of casting and counting ballots, and not the viable and necessary commercial business of delivering, deploying and servicing that technology.

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A Northern Exposed iVoting Adventure

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Alaska's extension to its iVoting venture may have raised the interests of at least one journalist for one highly visible publication.  When we were asked for our "take" on this form of iVoting, we thought that we should also comment here on this "northern exposed adventure." (apologies to those fans of the mid-90s wacky TV series of a similar name.) Alaska has been among the states that allow military and overseas voters to return marked absentee ballots digitally, starting with fax, then eMail, and then adding a web upload as a 3rd option.  Focusing specifically on the web-upload option, the question was: "How is Alaska doing this, and how do their efforts square with common concerns about security, accessibility, Federal standards, testing, certification, and accreditation?"

In most cases, any voting system has to run that whole gauntlet through to accreditation by a state, in order for the voting system to be used in that state. To date, none of the iVoting products have even trying to run that gauntlet.

So, what Alaska is doing, with respect to security, certification, and host of other things is essentially: flying solo.

Their system has not gone through any certification program (State, Federal, or otherwise that we can tell); hasn't been tested by an accredited voting system test lab; and nobody knows how it does or doesn't meet  federal requirements for security, accessibility, and other (voluntary) specifications and guidelines for voting systems.

In Alaska, they've "rolled their own" system.  It's their right as a State to do so.

In Alaska, military voters have several options, and only one of them is the ability to go to a web site, indicate their choices for vote, and have their votes recorded electronically -- no actual paper ballot involved, no absentee ballot affidavit or signature needed. In contrast to the sign/scan/email method of return of absentee ballot and affidavit (used in Alaska and 20 other states), this is straight-up iVoting.

So what does their experience say about all the often-quoted challenges of iVoting?  Well, of course in Alaska those challenges apply the same as anywhere else, and they are facing them all:

  1. insider threats;
  2. outsider hacking threats;
  3. physical security;
  4. personnel security; and
  5. data integrity (including that of the keys that underlie any use of cryptography)

In short, the Alaska iVoting solution faces all the challenges of digital banking and online commerce that every financial services industry titan and eCommerce giant spends big $ on every year (capital and expense), and yet still routinely suffer attacks and breaches.

Compared to the those technology titans of industry (Banking, Finance, Technology services, or even the Department of Defense), how well are Alaskan election administrators doing on their shoestring (by comparison) budget?

Good question.  It's not subject to annual review (like banks' IT operations audit for SAS-70), so we don't know.  That also is their right as a U.S. state.  However, the  fact that we don't know, does not debunkany of the common claims about these challenges.  Rather, it simply says that in Alaska they took on the challenges (which are large) and the general public doesn't know much about how they're doing.

To get a feeling for risks involved, just consider one point, think about the handful of IT geeks who manage the iVoting servers where the votes are recorded and stored as bits on a disk.  They arenot election officials, and they are no more entitled to stick their hands into paper ballots boxes than anybody else outside a county elections office.  Yet, they have the ability (though not the authorization) to access those bits.

  • Who are they?
  • Does anybody really oversee their actions?
  • Do they have remote access to the voting servers from anywhere on the planet?
  • Using passwords that could be guessed?
  • Who knows?

They're probably competent responsible people, but we don'tknow.  Not knowing any of that, then every vote on those voting servers is actually a question mark -- and that's simply being intellectually honest.

Lastly, to get a feeling for the possible significance of this lack of knowledge, consider a situation in which Alaska's electoral college votes swing an election, or where Alaska's Senate race swings control of Congress (not far-fetched given Murkowski's close call back in 2010.)

When the margin of victory in Alaska, for an election result that effects the entire nation, is a low 4-digit number of votes, and the number of digital votes cast is similar, what does that mean?

It's quite possible that those many digital votes could be cast in the next Alaska Senate race.  If the contest is that close again,  think about the scrutiny those IT folks will get.  Will they be evaluated any better than every banking data center investigated after a data breach?  Any better than Target?  Any better than Google or Adobe's IT management after having trade secrets stolen?  Or any better than the operators of military unclassified systems that for years were penetrated through intrusion from hackers located in China who may likely have been supported by the Chinese Army or Intelligence groups?

Probably not.

Instead, they'll be lucky (we hope) like the Estonian iVoting administrators, when the OCSE visited back in 2011 to have a look at the Estonian system.  Things didn't go so well.  OCSE found that one guy could have undermined the whole system.  Good news: it didn't happenCold comfort: that one guy didn't seem to have the opportunity -- most likely because he and his colleagues were busier than a one-armed paper hanger during the election, worrying about Russian hackers attacking again, after they had previously shut-down the whole country's Internet-connect government systems.

But so far, the current threat is remote, and it is still early days even for small scale usage of Alaska's iVoting option.  But while the threat is still remote, it might be good for the public to see some more about what's "under the hood" and who's in charge of the engine -- that would be our idea of more transparency.

Wandering off the Main Point for a Few Paragraphs So, in closing I'm going to run the risk of being a little preachy here (signaled by that faux HTML tag above); again, probably due to the surge in media inquiries recently about how the Millennial generation intends to cast their ballots one day.  Lock and load.

I (and all of us here) are all for advancing the hallmarks of the Millennial mandates of the digital age: ease and convenience.  I am also keenly aware there are wing-nuts looking for their Andy Warhol moment.  And whether enticed by some anarchist rhetoric, their own reality distortion field, or most insidious: the evangelism of a terrorist agenda (domestic or foreign) ...said wing nut(s) -- perhaps just for grins and giggles -- might see an opportunity to derail an election (see my point above about a close race that swings control of Congress or worse).

Here's the deep concern: I'm one of those who believes that the horrific attacks of 9.11 had little to do with body count or the implosions of western icons of financial might.  The real underlying agenda was to determine whether it might be possible to cause a temblor of sufficient magnitude to take world financial markets seriously off-line, and whether doing so might cause a rippling effect of chaos in world markets, and what disruption and destruction that might wreak.  If we believe that, then consider the opportunity for disruption of the operational continuity of our democracy.

Its not that we are Internet haters: we're not -- several of us came from Netscape and other technology companies that helped pioneer the commercialization of that amazing government and academic experiment we call the Internet.  Its just that THIS Internet and its current architecture simply was not designed to be inherently secure or to ensure anyone's absolute privacy (and strengthening one necessarily means weakening the other.)

So, while we're all focused on ease and convenience, and we live in an increasingly distributed democracy, and the Internet cloud is darkening the doorstep of literally every aspect of society (and now government too), great care must be taken as legislatures rush to enact new laws and regulations to enable studies, or build so-called pilots, or simply advance the Millennial agenda to make voting a smartphone experience.  We must be very careful and considerably vigilant, because its not beyond the realm of reality that some wing-nut is watching, cracking their knuckles in front of their screen and keyboard, mumbling, "Oh please. Oh please."

Alaska has the right to venture down its own path in the northern territory, but it does so exposing an attack surface.  They need not (indeed, cannot) see this enemy from their back porch (I really can't say of others).  But just because it cannot be identified at the moment, doesn't mean it isn't there.

One other small point:  As a research and education non-profit we're asked why shouldn't we be "working on making Internet voting possible?Answer: Perhaps in due time.  We do believe that on the horizon responsible research must be undertaken to determine how we can offer an additional alternative by digital means to casting a ballot next to absentee and polling place experiences.  And that "digital means" might be over the public packet-switched network.  Or maybe some other type of network.  We'll get there.  But candidly, our charge for the next couple of years is to update an outdated architecture of existing voting machinery and elections systems and bring about substantial, but still incremental innovation that jurisdictions can afford to adopt, adapt and deploy.  We're taking one thing at a time and first things first; or as our former CEO at Netscape used to say, we're going to "keep the main thing, the main thing."

Onward
GAM|out

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"Definitive" Word on Internet Voting? Look to NIST

As frequent readers will note, Internet voting as a discussion topic is one we increasingly tire of -- there is so much else to do! that unlike Internet Voting, can actually be done today! Let's talk instead about what tech innovations can do speed up the long lines at polling places, for example. But nevertheless, today, esteemed colleagues were asking for a "definitive statement" on i-voting, having been asked for such by folks who work for legislators interested in the topic. So I thought I'd share what I like to say when legislators, staffers, etc. ask for "definitive". Basically 3 steps.

Look to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. government's top authority on technology issues. They've studied the use of the Internet for everything in elections, including voting.

  1. Read their conclusion on top half of page 69 of NIST's "Threat Analysis of Voting Systems" (here), supported by analysis in pages 42-46.
  2. Also briefly flip through NIST's 36 pages of "Information System Security Best Practices" (here) for Internet-connected election support systems.
  3. Think about whether state or local election officials would have the funding to comply with NIST guidelines, even for the lower bar of distributing blank ballots, much less the higher bar of Internet Voting.

That's pretty much it.

-- EJS

PS: While we're on the topic, my thanks to Jeremy Epstein for tackling another topic on i-voting  (botnets, one among several i-voting topics that I am happy to leave to Jeremy and other colleagues in the security world), and for letting me put my 2 cents in for his Freedom To Tinker blog today. Thanks Jeremy, for doing the $0.98, and keep up the good work !  -- ejs

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D.C. Reality Check – The Opportunities and Challenges of Transparency

Gentle Readers:This is a long article/posting.  Under any other circumstance it would be just too long.

There has been much written regarding the public evaluation and testing of the District of Columbia’s Overseas “Digital Vote-by-Mail” Service (the D.C.’s label).  And there has been an equal amount of comment and speculation about technology supplied to the District from the OSDV Foundation’s TrustTheVote Project, and our role in the development of the D.C. service.  Although we’ve been mostly silent over the past couple of weeks, now enough has been determined so that we can speak to all readers (media sources included) about the project from our side of the effort.

The coverage has been extensive, with over 4-dozen stories reaching over 370 outlets not including syndication.  We believe it’s important to offer a single, contiguous commentary, to provide the OSDV Foundation’s point of view, as a complement to those of the many media outlets that have been covering the project.

0. The Working Relationship: D.C. BoEE & TrustTheVote Project Only geeks start lists with item “0” but in this case its meant to suggest something “condition-precedent” to understanding anything about our work to put into production certain components of our open source elections technology framework in D.C. elections.  Given the misunderstanding of the mechanics of this relationship, we want readers to understand 6 points about this collaboration with the District of Columbia's Board of Elections & Ethics (BoEE), and the D.C. I.T. organization:

  1. Role: We acted in the capacity of a technology provider – somewhat similar to a software vendor, but with the critical difference of being a non-profit R&D organization.  Just as has been the case with other, more conventional, technology providers to D.C, there was generally a transom between the OSDV Foundation’s TTV Project and the I.T. arm of the District of Columbia.
  2. Influence: We had very little (if any) influence over anything construed as policy, process, or procedure.
  3. Access: We had no access or participation in D.C.’s IT organization and specifically its data center operations (including any physical entry or server log-in for any reason), and this was for policy and procedural reasons.
  4. Advice: We were free to make recommendations and suggestions, and provide instructions and guidelines for server configurations, application deployment, and the like.
  5. Collaboration: We collaborated with the BoEE on the service design, and provided our input on issues, opportunities, challenges, and concerns, including a design review meeting of security experts at Google in Mountain View, CA early on.
  6. Advocacy: We advocated for the public review, cautioning that the digital ballot return aspect should be restricted to qualified overseas “UOCAVA” voters, but at all times, the BoEE, and the D.C. I.T. organization “called the shots” on their program.

And to go on record with an obvious but important point: we did not have any access to the ballot server, marked ballots, handling of voter data, or any control over any services for the same.  And no live data was used for testing.

Finally, we provided D.C. with several software components of our TTV Elections Technology Framework, made available under our OSDV Public License, an open source license for royalty-free use of software by government organizations.  Typical to nearly any deployment we have done or will do, the preexisting software did not fit seamlessly with D.C. election I.T. systems practices, and we received a “development grant” to make code extensions and enhancements to these software components, in order for them to comprise a D.C.-specific system for blank ballot download and an experimental digital ballot return mechanism (see #7 below).

The technology we delivered had two critically different elements and values.  The 1st, "main body of technology" included the election data management, ballot design, and voter user interface for online distribution of blank ballots to overseas voters.  With this in hand, the BoEE has acquired a finished MOVE Act compliant blank ballot delivery system, plus significant components of a new innovative elections management system that they own outright, including the source code and right to modify and extend the system.

For this system, BoEE obtained the pre-existing technology without cost; and for D.C-specific extensions, they paid a fraction of what any elections organization can pay for a standard commercial election management system with a multi-year right-to-use license including annual license fees.

D.C.’s acquired system is also a contrast to more than 20 other States that are piloting digital ballot delivery systems with DoD funding, but only for a one-time trial use.  Unlike D.C., if those States want to continue using their systems, they will have to find funding to pay for on-going software licenses, hosting, data center support, and the like.  There is no doubt, a comparison shows that the D.C. project has saved the District a significant amount of money over what they might have had to spend for ongoing support of overseas and military voters.

That noted, the other (2nd) element of the system – digital return of ballots – was an experimental extension to the base system that was tested prior to possible use in this year’s November election.  The experiment failed in testing to achieve the level of integrity necessary to take it into the November election.  This experimental component has been eliminated from the system used this year.  The balance of this long article discusses why that is the case, and what we saw from our point of view, and what we learned from this otherwise successful exercise.

1. Network Penetration and Vulnerabilities There were two types of intrusions as a result of an assessment orchestrated by a team at the University of Michigan led by Dr. Alex Halderman, probing the D.C. network that had been made available to public inspection.  The first was at the network operations level.  During the time that the Michigan team was testing the network and probing for vulnerabilities, they witnessed what appeared to be intrusion attempts originating from machines abroad from headline generating countries such as China and IranWe anticipate soon learning from the D.C. IT Operations leaders what network security events actually transpired, because detailed review is underway.  And more to that point, these possible network vulnerabilities, while important for the District IT operations to understand, were unrelated to the actual application software that was deployed for the public test that involved a mock election, mock ballots, and fictitious voter identities provided to testers.

2. Server Penetration and Vulnerabilities The second type of intrusion was directly on the District’s (let’s call it) “ballot server,” through a vulnerability in the software deployed on that server. That software included: the Red Hat Linux server operating system; the Apache Web server with standard add-ons; the add-on for the Rails application framework; the Ruby-on-Rails application software for the ballot delivery and return system; and some 3rd party library software, both to supplement the application software, and the Apache software.

The TrustTheVote Project provided 6 technology assets (see below, Section 7) to the BoEE project, plus a list of requirements for "deployment;" that is, the process of combining the application software with the other elements listed above, in order to create a working 3-tier application running on 3 servers: a web proxy server, an application server, and a database server.  One of those assets was a Web application for delivering users with a correct attestation document and the correct blank ballot, based on their registration records.  That was the "download" portion of the BoEE service, similar to the FVAP solutions that other states are using this year on a try-it-once basis.

3. Application Vulnerability Another one of those technology assets was an "upload" component, which performed fairly typical Web application functions for file upload, local file management, and file storage – mostly relying on a 3rd-party library for these functions.  The key D.C.-specific function was to encrypt each uploaded ballot file to preserve ballot secrecy.  This was done using the GPG file encryption program, with a command shell to execute GPG with a very particular set of inputs.  One of those inputs was the name of the uploaded file. 

And here was the sticking point.  Except for this file-encryption command, the library software largely performed the local file management functions.  This included the very important function of renaming the uploaded file to avoid giving users the ability to define file names on the server.  Problem: during deployment, a new version of this library software package was installed, in which the file name checks were not performed as expected by the application software.  Result: carefully crafted file names, inserted into the shell command, gave attackers the ability to execute pretty much any shell command, with the userID and privileges of the application itself.

Just as the application requires the ability to rename, move, encrypt, and save files, the injected commands could also use the same abilities.  And this is the painfully ironic point: the main application-specific data security function (file encryption), by incorrectly relying on a library, exposed those ballot files (and the rest of the application) to external tampering.

4.  Consequences The Michigan team was creative in their demonstration of the results of attacking a vulnerability in what Halderman calls a "brittle design," a fair critique common to nearly every Web application deployed using application frameworks and application servers.  In such a design, the application and all of its code operates as a particular userID on the server.  No matter how much a deployment constrains the abilities of that user and the code running as that user, the code, by definition, has to be able to use the data that the application manages.

Therefore, if there is a “chink” in any of the pieces the collective armor (e.g., the server, its operating system, web server, application platform, application software, or libraries) or the way they fit together, then that “chink” can turn use into an abuse.  That abuse applies to any and all of the data managed by the application, as well as the file storage used by the application.  As the Michigan teamed demonstrated, this general rule also applies specifically, when the application data includes ballot files.

5.  Mea Culpa Let’s be clear, the goof we made, and “our bad” in the application development was not anticipating a different version of the 3rd-party library, and not locking in the specific version that did perform file name checking that we assumed was done to prevent exactly this type of vulnerability.  And in fact, we learned 4 valuable lessons from this stumble:

  1. Factoring Time:  Overly compressed schedules will almost certainly ensure a failure point is triggered.  This project suffered from a series of cycle-time issues in getting stuff requisitioned, provisioned, and configured, and other intervening issues for the BoEE, including their Primary election which further negatively impacted the time frame.  This led to a very compressed amount of time to stage and conduct this entire exercise;
  2. Transparency vs. Scrutiny:  The desired public transparency put everyone involved in a highly concentrated light of public scrutiny, and margins of otherwise tolerable error allowed during a typical test phase were nonexistent in this setting – even the slightest oversight typically caught in a normal testing phase was considered fault intolerant, as if the Pilot were already in production;
  3. (Web) Application Design:  Web applications for high-value, high-risk data require substantial work to avoid brittleness.  Thankfully, none of the TrustTheVote Elections Technology Framework will require an Internet-connected Web application or service – so the 3rd lesson is how much of a relief that is going forward for us; and
  4. No Immunity from Mistake: Even the most experienced professionals are not immune from mistake or misstep, especially when they are working under very skeptical public scrutiny and a highly compressed time schedule our development team, despite a combined total of 7 decades of experience, included.

So, we learned some valuable lessons from this exercise. We still believe in the public transparency mandate, and fully accept responsibility for the goof in the application development and release engineering process.

Now, there is more to say about some wholly disconnected issues regarding other discovered network vulnerabilities, completely beyond our control (see #0 above), but we’ll save comment on that until after the D.C. Office of the CTO completes their review of the Michigan intrusion exercise.   Next, we turn attention to some outcomes.

6. Outcomes Let's pull back up to the 30-thousand foot level, and consider what the discussion has been about (leaving aside foreign hackers).  This test revealed a security weakness of a Web application framework; how there can be flaws in application-specific extensions to routine Web functions like file upload, including flaws that can put those functions and files at risk.  Combine that with the use of Web applications for uploading files that are ballots.  Then, the discussion turns on whether it is possible (or prudent) to try to field any Web application software, or even any other form of software, that transfers marked ballots over the Internet.  We expect that discussion to vigorously continue, including efforts that we’d be happy to see, towards a legislative ruling on the notion, such to Ohio’s decision to ban digital ballot transfer for overseas voting or North Carolina’s recent enthusiastic embrace of it.

However, public examination, testing, and the related discussions and media coverage, were key objectives of this project.  Rancorous as that dialogue may have become, we think it’s better than the dueling monologues that we witnessed at the NIST conference on overseas digital voting (reported here earlier).

But this is an important discussion, because it bears on an important question about the use of the Internet, which could range from (a) universal Internet voting as practiced in other countries (which nearly everyone in this discussion, including the OSDV Foundation, agrees is a terrible idea for the U.S.), to (b) the type of limited-scope usage of the Internet that may be needed only for overseas and military voters who really have time-to-vote challenges, or (c) limited only to ballot distribution.  For some, the distinction is irrelevant.  For others, it could be highly relevant.  For many, it is a perilous slippery slope.  It's just barely possible that worked examples and discussion could actually lead to sorting out this issue.

The community certainly does have some worked examples this year, not just the D.C. effort, and not just DoD’s FVAP pilots, but also other i-Voting efforts in West Virginia and elsewhere.  And thankfully, we hear rumors that NIST will be fostering more discussion with a follow-up conference in early 2011 to discuss what may have been learned from these efforts in 2010.  (We look forward to that, although our focus returns to open source elections technology that has nothing to do with the Internet!)

7. Our Technology Contributions Finally, for the record, below we catalog the technology we contributed to the District of Columbia’s Overseas “Digital Vote-by-Mail” service (again, their label).  If warranted, we can expand on this, another day.  The assets included:

  1. Three components of the open source TrustTheVote (TTV) Project Elections Technology Framework: [A] the Election Manager, [B] the Ballot Design Studio, and [C] the Ballot Generator.
  2. We augmented the TTV Election Manager and TTV Ballot Design Studio to implement D.C.-specific features for election definition, ballot design, and ballot marking.
  3. We extended some earlier work we’ve done in voter record management to accommodate the subset of D.C. voter records to be used in the D.C. service, including the import of D.C.-specific limited-scope voter records into an application-specific database.
  4. We added a Web application user experience layer on top of that, so that voters can identify themselves as matching a voter database record, and obtain their correct ballot (the application and logic leading up to the blank ballot "download" function referred to above) and to provide users with content about how to complete the ballot and return via postal or express mail services.
  5. We added a database extension to import ballot files (created by the TTV Ballot Generator), using a D.C.-specific method to connect them to the voter records in order to provide the right D.C.-specific ballot to each user.
  6. We added the upload capability to the web application, so that users could choose the option of uploading a completed ballot PDF; this capability also included the server-side logic to encrypt the files on arrival.

All of these items, including the existing open-source TTV technology components listed above in 7.1 above, together with the several other off-the-shelf open-source operating system and application software packages listed in Section 2 above, were all integrated by D.C’s IT group to comprise the “test system” that we’ve discussed in this article.

In closing, needless to say, (but we do so anyway for the record) while items 7.1—7.5 can certainly be used to provide a complete solution for MOVE Act compliant digital blank ballot distribution, item 7.6 is not being used for any purpose, in any real election, any time soon.

One final point worth re-emphasizing: real election jurisdiction value from an open source solution.....

The components listed in 7.1—7.5 above provide a sound on-going production-ready operating component to the District’s elections administration and management for a fraction of the cost of limited alternative commercial solutions.  They ensure MOVE Act compliance, and do not require any digital ballot return.  And the District owns 100% of the source code, which is fully transparent and open source.  For the Foundation in general, and the TrustTheVote Project in particular, this portion of the project is an incontrovertible success of our non-profit charter and we believe a first of its kind.

And that is our view of D.C.‘s project to develop their “Digital Vote-by-Mail” service, and test it along with the digital ballot return function.  Thanks for plowing through it with us.

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Remote Voting Technology Workshop Wanders the Edge of an Intellectual Food Fight

[Note: This is a personal opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Foundation or TrustTheVote Project.] I should have seen this coming.  What was I thinking or expecting?

I am reporting tNIST_Logohis evening from the NIST Workshop on UOCAVA Remote Voting Systems here in Washington D.C..  After a great set of meetings earlier today on other activities of the Foundation (which we’ll have more to say about soon, but had nothing to do with our contributions to the District’s UOCAVA voting Pilot) I arrived at the Wardman Park Marriott near the Naval Observatory (home of the Vice President) for the Workshop, having unfortunately missed the morning sessions.  I barely made it into the lobby, when I had my first taste of what was being served.

My first exposure to the workshop (by then on lunch break) was witnessing a somewhat heated discussion between members of the Verified Voting Foundation and Rokey Suleman, Director of Elections for the District of Columbia.  Apparently, a speaker (identity is irrelevant) of noted authority had delivered a talk before lunch in which he spoke rather condescendingly toward elections officials (likening them to “drunk drivers”).

Mr. Suleman was explaining that so far the meeting appeared to be a waste of his time (principally because of such ad hominen remarks).  Those of the Verified Voting Foundation seemed unwilling to acknowledge that this speaker had (how ever unintentionally) denigrated the hard work of elections officials (as several others later relayed to me they too perceived), emphasizing instead that this individual was, "The nicest person who would never intend such a thing."

Diplomacy 101 teaches: Perception equals reality.

Rather, they seemed to cling to the fact that this speaker was so much of an authority (which strictly speaking this person who made the drunken driving reference, is in fact a technical authority), that this comment should be overlooked.

The argument devolved from there; the substance of which is irrelevant.  What is relevant, however, is that in the very next session after lunch, another argument broke out over legal details of the letter of the UOCAVA law(s) and the related promulgated regulations enacting new aspects of overseas voting that enable (among other things) the digital delivery of blank ballots, and – arguably – the opportunity to pilot a means of digital return.

By the way: have I mentioned this workshop is supposed to be about UOCAVA remote voting which is limited to a qualified subset of that population overseas, and not the unrestricted widespread so-called "Internet voting?" But yet, an uninformed onlooker could reasonably believe that the battle lines were being drawn over the general widespread notion of Internet Voting on the basis of the so-called "slippery slope" argument.  (Note: I'll leave it to trained Philosophers to explain why that argument actually is illogical in its own right in most applications.)  So, take a look at the Workshop description and draw your own conclusions.

The issue seems to be overly-trained on possibilities/potential of compromise and nowhere near a discussion of probability.  What’s more, I’m so far hearing nothing of the discussions about the technical challenges we need to address and how if at all (only an official from the Okaloosa Distance Balloting Pilot attempted to offer any such presentation or agenda).

Instead, I kept hearing the rhetoric of avoidance – both in and outside of sessions.  But the Internet has darkened the doorstep of nearly every aspect of society today. Why does it feel like we’re fooling ourselves into believing that somehow this cloud won’t also darken the doorstep of elections in a digital age?  Unfortunately, it already is; and future generations may well demand it.  However, that's a discussion for another venue -- we're supposed to be exploring remote voting solutions for qualified overseas voters.

Let me say once again:

The Foundation and TrustTheVote Project do NOT support the widespread use of the Internet for the transaction of voting data.

That restated, as far as the Internet playing any role in elections is concerned, it seems to me that we need to look carefully at how to address this challenge, scourge, or whatever we want to call it, rather than try to abolish or avoid it.  Had this mentality been applied to sending man to the moon, this nation never would have achieved four successful lunar landings out of five attempts.

But again, arguing over what role the Internet should or should not play in elections is not why I am here.  Intellectually honest discourse on the challenges and opportunities of UOCAVA remote voting solutions is why I am attending.  And I hoped I would witness (and participate in) a healthy discussion of the technical challenges beyond encryption debates and ideas on how to address them.

So far, I have not.

Instead, what I have is a seat in an intellectual food fight.  Notwithstanding a few interesting comments, speakers, and hallway chats, this sadly so far is a near waste of time (and money).  As one election official put it to me at this evening's no-host reception:

Today reminds me of an observation by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford Philosopher: there is absolute certainty that the universe we live in is artificial.  Because that’s the only logical conclusion you can reach when you exclusively calculate possibilities without any consideration of probabilities.

Thankfully, we (at the Foundation) have much to work on regarding the use of computers in real world elections that has nothing to do with the transport layer.  Outside of these workshops, we don't intend to address Internet solutions in our work in any significant manner.

And thankfully more, we had some very positive meetings this morning that validated the potential of our work to actually deliver publicly owned critical democracy infrastructure for accurate, transparent, trustworthy, and secure elections.

Tomorrow is another day; we'll see what happens, and I'll report back. GAM|out

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