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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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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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Bishop on Heartbleed

(My thanks to a security colleague Matt Bishop who offered this excellent rant (his term not mine!) on Heartbleed and what we can learn from it, and the connection to open source. You can read riff on it here.)

“First, the Heartbleed vulnerability isn’t a virus; you can’t be infected by it. It’s a programming error in one particular part of OpenSSL that was introduced when new functionality was added in late 2011. If the servers you connect to do not use OpenSSL, you’re safe from this. But many very widely used servers do use it, hence the concern.

The comment is that it’s a good example of the subtlety of problems that can be introduced through poor programming practices. The specific problem was an assumption that an incoming packet length as given in the packet is correct. The attack basically puts a bogus value in the length field, which enables the attacker to capture a chunk of memory that may contain sensitive data like user names and password — in the clear. The value in the length field is not something most programmers would question or try to validate.

We’ve seen similar vulnerabilities before in software designed to enhance or check security. The one that comes to mind immediately was in a widely used encryption library that had a buffer overflow, allowing anyone who used a server (or privileged program) that relied on the library to escalate privileges. The reference for the curious is:

http://www.cert.org/historical/advisories/CA-1999-15.cfm

This is why people like me are so concerned about complex code, *including* the underlying operating systems and drivers that support the election software. Note I didn’t say secret. Secret code to my mind is by definition suspect, especially in an environment in which transparency is a key requirement (for example, elections). But even open source code that is complex is suspect, because of the possibility of subtle errors. Or, as a friend of mine put it in a talk he gave in 1989, “[Company] claims it has developed a secure system. It’s 1.5 million lines of code. 1.5 million! Want to bet I can’t find a vulnerability in 1.5 million lines of code?” And systems were much smaller then . . . if I remember correctly, Microsoft Windows 2000 had roughly 33.5 million lines of code in its code base. No idea how much code the various versions of Windows have now.

And none of this covers the process (procedures) surrounding the use of these systems, which also need to be checked as a whole.

Rantings from a security person,

Matt”

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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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Exactly Who is Delivering Postal Ballots? and Do We Care?

An esteemed colleague noted the news of the USPS stopping weekend delivery, as part of a trend of slow demise of the USPS, and asked: will we get to the point where vote-by-mail is vote-by-Fedex? And would that be bad, having a for-profit entity acting as the custodian for a large chunk of the ballots in an election? The more I thought about it, the more flummoxed I was. I had to take off the geek hat and dust off the philosopher hat, looking at the question from a viewpoint of values, rather than (as would be my wont) requirements analysis or risk analysis. I goes like this ...

I think that Phil's question is based on assumption of some shared values among voters -- all voters, not just those that vote by mail -- that make postal voting acceptable because ballots are a "government things" and so is postal service. Voting is in part an act of faith in government to be making a good faith effort to do the job right, and keep the operations above a minimum acceptable level of sanity. It "feels OK" to hand a marked ballot to my regular neighborhood post(wo)man, but not to some stranger dropping off a box from a delivery truck. Translate from value to feeling to expectation: it's implied that we expect USPS staff to know that they have a special government duty in delivering ballots, and to work to honor that duty, regarding the integrity of those special envelopes as a particular trust, as well as their timely delivery.

  • Having re-read all that, it sounds so very 20th century, almost as antique as lever machines for voting.

I don't really think that USPS is "the government" anymore, not in the sense that the journey of a VBM ballot is end-to-end inside a government operation. I'm not sure that Fedex or UPS are inherently more or less trustworthy. In fact they all work for each other now! And certainly in some circumstances the for-profit operations may to some voters feel more trustworthy -- whether because of bad experiences with USPS, or because of living overseas in a country that surveils US citizens and operates the postal service.

Lastly, I think that many people do share the values behind Phil's question -- I know I do. The idea makes me wobbly. I think it comes down to this:

  • If you're wobbly on for-profit VBM, then get back into the voting booth, start volunteering to help your local election officials, and if they are effectively outsourcing any election operations to for-profit voting system vendors, help them stop doing so.
  • If you not wobbly, then you're part of trend to trusting -- and often doing -- remote voting with significant involvement from for-profit entities - and we know where that is headed.

The issue with USPS shows that in the 21st century, any form of remote voting will involve for-profits, whether it is Fedex for VBM, or Amazon cloud services for i-voting. My personal conclusions:

  • Remote voting is lower integrity no matter what, but gets more people voting because in-person voting can be such a pain.
  • I need to my redouble efforts to fix the tech so that in-person voting is not only not a pain, but actually more desirable than remote voting.

-- EJS

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Election Snags

According to CNN's Matt Smith, long lines and sporadic problems with voting machines caused snags in some key states during Tuesday's closely watched U.S. election. For example, in Pennsylvania, nonpartisan election monitors from Philadelphia's Committee of Seventy said two voting machines had broken down at one precinct on the city's north side, forcing poll workers to issue provisional ballots. That slowed down an already long line, and at least 30 voters had dropped out, the group said. One of the problems with a provisional vote is that your vote does not have to be opened and counted until later - in some situations, as late as November 17, 2012.

In what has become a controversial attempt to accommodate voters who were displaced by hurricane Sandy, state officials in New Jersey allowed voters to cast ballots electronically or by fax.The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union headed to court this afternoon on behalf of voters who stated that their requests for an electronic ballot were not being recognized by election officials.

The TrustTheVote Project, is addressing a serious problem in voting technology: the lack of open election technology that is demonstrably worthy of the public’s trust. The snags that have and are occurring in many states during today's elections magnify the problems that The TrustTheVote Project is dedicated to resolve.

- CS

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Tabulator Troubles in New York

Behind the election news in Buffalo, NY, there is a cautionary tale about voting system complexity and confidence. The story is about a very close race for the state Senate's 60th district. One news article includes a reference to "software problems with the new electronic voting machines in Erie County." The fundamental issue here is whether to trust the vote count numbers, in a case where the race is very close and where the voting system malfunctioned at least once, because of a software bug later identified by the vendor. If one part of the system malfunctioned, shouldn't we also be concerned that another part may also have malfunctioned? An error on even one of the over a 100 paper-ballot-counting devices could easily swamp the very small margin between the top two candidates.

Those are good questions, and as frequent readers will already know, the typical answer is "audit", that is, hand-counting a portion of the paper ballots to ensure that the hand-counts match the machine counts, using statistical science to guide how many ballots to hand count to achieve confidence that the overall election results are valid. That's what the state of Connecticut -- another recent adopter of paper ballots over lever machines -- is doing with a manual count of ballots from 73 of the 734 precincts statewide.

But that's not happening in Buffalo (as far as I can tell), where instead there is wrangling over doing a full re-count, with confusion over the voting system malfunction muddying the waters. And that's a shame, because election technology properly used (including routine audits) should not cause this kind of legal activity over the validity of an election result -- in this case an important one that could influence party control in the state Senate, with re-districting on the horizon.

But some of the finger-point goes to the technology too. What actually malfunctioned? Could the glitch have effect the election result? What can we learn from the incident? Questions for next time ...

-- 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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Doug Jones on the Secret Ballot

[Today I want to share some eloquent writing about the right to a secret ballot. Though Doug Jones' October 2008 remarks are about an issue that arose a couple years ago, his words remain extremely relevant, especially in the context of the current discussion of e-mail voting. The discussion with Doug started with an issue in which there was a trade-off between a well-meaning attempt to streamline polling place operations on the one hand, and the chance that as a result, a single ballot in the polling place might become attributable to a voter. With the latter being highly unlikely, should we really forego a chance to reduce opportunity for errors in polling place operations? Over to Doug ….] If this were the only threat to the right to a secret ballot, I would not be too worried.  The problem is, if you look across the current voting system landscape, you find that the right to a secret ballot is being downplayed again and again.

  • The crypto-voting folks are anxious to put serial numbers on our ballots.
  • The proliferation of different ballot styles in some states creates a high likelihood that a significant number of voters in each precinct will each be the only voter using some particular ballot style in that precinct.
  • Ballot tracking systems for vote-by-mail elections create the possibility that voters will be able to identify the particular batch of ballots that their ballot was in, with a high likelihood that theirs is the only ballot of some particular style that got into that batch.

In each case, the argument is that this is not a significant threat. In sum, we are at risk of losing the right to a secret ballot.

I agree that many voters today do not greatly value the right to a secret ballot.  Most of us feel free from threat of coercion, and most of our votes aren't for sale.

However (as I said to the editor of the National Review recently), we shouldn't ask what is good enough for us, given current conditions, but what defenses will we have in place in the event that we elect a corrupt government; and also, what example do we set for corrupt governments that we'd like to urge on the path to democracy.  If we allow a weakened right to a secret ballot, how can we ask other countries to set higher standards, and what will we do if the crooks do end up in control of our elections?

It's important to recall that it was not too long ago that big city political machines routinely violated people's right to a secret ballot.  I would propose that the abuses of this were sufficiently severe that the right to a secret ballot would be a reasonable benchmark for election integrity -- if some threat is more serious than the loss of the right to a secret ballot, then it is a very serious threat.  If some threat model discounts threats to secret ballots as negligible, then the threat model is probably wrong.

---

[A closing remark … Yes, there are several competing interests in election administration and election management, as the email debate shows. But it does seem that we need to keep a special eye on ballot secrecy, or it might might get lost in the shuffle. Even as election practices continue to evolve, as they have throughout U.S. history, we need to look for opportunities to strengthen ballot secrecy, and vigorously pursue those opportunities.

-- EJS]

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Bruce Schneier on "Worst Case Thinking"

Although he was talking in a very different context, I still think that Bruce Schneier's perspectives on worst-case thinking have relevance to us:

"Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it's only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes." (from Schneier on Security)

I recommend you read Bruce Schneier's perspectives on worst-case thinking, it's quite interesting, and you will see his second and third reasons why we need to be careful with worst-case thinking.

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