Tuesday, 11 August 2009

E-voting machine hacked via return oriented programming

US computer scientists have successfully made a Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic voting machine (version 5.00D) "turn against itself and steal votes".

See the 5-minute video demo above by Hovav Shacham, a professor of computer science at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering and co-author of the report on their research - "Can DREs Provide Long-Lasting Security? The Case of Return-Oriented Programming and the AVC Advantage" by Stephen Checkoway, UC San Diego, J. Alex Halderman, U Michigan, Ariel J. Feldman, Princeton, Edward W. Felten, Princeton, Brian Kantor, UC San Diego, Hovav Shacham, UC San Diego ("DRE"stands for "direct recording electronic", in the context of voting machines).

From the report:

"We have demonstrated that an attacker can exploit vulnerabilities in the AVC Advantage software to install vote-stealing malware by using a maliciously-formatted memory cartridge, without replacing the system ROMs. Starting with no source code, schematics, or nonpublic documentation, we reverse engineered the AVC Advantage and developed a working vote-stealing attack with less than 16 man-months of labor."

The paper was presented at the 2009 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop / Workshop on Trustworthy Elections.

The news release from UCSD outlines the technique used:

"return-oriented programming, …is a powerful systems security exploit that generates malicious behavior by combining short snippets of benign code already present in the system.

The new study demonstrates that return-oriented programming can be used to execute vote-stealing computations by taking control of a voting machine designed to prevent code injection."

Hacking e-voting machines is of course an excellent way for organised crime or corrupt political parties, or even terrorists or spies from other countries, to make sure that their chosen candidates are elected into power.

I use technology a lot and am more familiar with it than most lawyers (and probably most people - here of course I assume lawyers are a subclass of people rather than a separate class, although I know some may disagree!).

So I am well aware that technology has its limitations, and it should only be used in situations where it's appropriate.

Voting, which is vital to democracy, is not one of them.

Paper voting is best because electronic voting machines are too easily subverted, as this research has shown.

I hope that this new research represents another nail in the coffin for evoting and that politicians can be persuaded away from their love affair with e-voting, to mix a metaphor.

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