Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting in an important work on the insecurity of e-voting systems. 

In an important book Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting, Avi Rubin writes `too often in American life, when it comes to divisive issues, the facts can be less important than the weight of public opinion'. That basically sums up Rubin's story in this fascinating story of his frustrations in dealing with government and corporate officials in his quest to show that e-voting was not as secure as it was originally made out to be. 

Brave New Ballot (BNB) is Rubin's story of how in 2003, he and his graduate students at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that the Diebold Election Systems electronic voting technology in wide use was full of security problems. It was just in 2002 that Sherron Watkins of Enron was named Time magazine person of the year for her work in uncovering fraud at Enron. It would have been thought that Rubin's work would have immediately won him some sort of patriot of the year award for his work. 

While the accolades were indeed many, his team's research was maligned as being that of a homework assignment, and the Administrator for Elections for the state of Maryland (where Rubin lives and works) publicly stated that `computer scientists (a direct reference to Rubin and his team) who question the security of electronic voting machines are undermining our democracy.' Such a scenario makes up much of the story that the book tells in Rubin's team's efforts to blow the whistle on unsecure e-voting machines. 

As to the Administrator for Elections for the state of Maryland and her disdain for computer scientists, she would likely find constituents such as the zombie-like Stepford wives more to her liking. Unfortunately, she ended up with Professor Rubin. 

It is not that secure electronic voting is inherently unattainable. Rather, nearly all of the commercial solutions that have shipped to date have not been adequate designed with security in mind. This is due to many factors, some of which are that the makers of these devices do not completely understand the security risks and countermeasures, in addition to public officials who are far too trusting of these commercial e-voting vendors. 

The early chapters of the book detail how Rubin's team analyzed the security and cryptography used within extremely sloppy coding of the Diebold Accuvote-TS director recording electronic device. One particularly humorous incident is when the Diebold programmers reference Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography in their C++ code for their decision of which algorithm to use of a for pseudorandom number generation. The only problem is that Applied Cryptography states that the specific algorithm they used should specifically not be utilized for random number generation. Rubin comically states about that incident that Diebold should have consulted with Schneier, rather than have their staff misunderstand what they read in his book. 

After his team presented their report in 2003, Rubin writes in detail how Diebold started a smear campaign against him. Not only was it Diebold, but also election officials in municipalities that had deployed the Accuvote-TS system that also maligned Rubin. This was done primarily by misinterpreting his objections, and also by refusing to pay attention to other independent reports on the insecurity of the devices. 

Being a whistle-blower always takes a toll on a person and Rubin was no different. He work on e-voting consumed him and took a toll on his family, career and his students. The book chronicles how Rubin found himself caught in crossfire between big business, partisan politics, and overworked election officials. Rubin also found himself between the crosshairs of the ITAA (Information Technology Association of America), powerful vendor-based lobbying group. The ITAA, of which Diebold was a client, attempted to discredit him on many occasions, but their evidence was always weak and reckless, and in the end only served to bolster Rubin's claims against the Diebold systems. 

Part of the absurd claims of the ITAA was that the open-source movement is using the issue of e-voting security to wage a `religious war' that pits open-source software against proprietary software. Rubin could have filed chapters with similar ITAA absurdities, but wisely chose not to. 

99% of the voting public does not know about backdoors, insecure code, Trojan Horses, insider threats, and scores of other security issues that the e-voting vendors have yet failed to fully address. The election process as we know it is rapidly being migrated to these electronic voting machines that are replacing the older, but more reliable mechanical systems. 

BNB is a timely and important book as it details the very real defects on which these e-voting systems are built on (and Windows is only one of them). The ITAA made claims such that the only vulnerability within e-voting is that of a rogue programmer conspiring to steal public office. Such politicking only serves to confuse the issue for a public that is inherently trustful of these voting machines. Yet if these e-voting machines were built to the same stringencies and regulations that the aviation and pharmaceutical industry faces, they would never make it within a mile of a voting booth. 

Brave New Ballot is to e-voting what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is to the global environmental movement. It is a vitally important book that details the problem of e-voting and what can be done in the future to make certain that it can one day be carried out in a secure manner. 

Of course, the image of an embedded crypto key or plaintext password in an e-voting system does not convey the same impact on the public as that of a thalidomide baby. Pictures of thalidomide babies caused heads to roll at the FDA, and one should hope the that the publication of Brave New Ballot will awaken the public from their slumber on the topic of electronic voting, and encourage the Election Assistance Commission to immediately ban electronic voting until it can be secured. 

Deforest Soaries, the first Chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission sums it up best when he states `If the integrity of our sacred right of voting is less important than partisan politics, corporate interests, or bureaucratic systems, then shame on us for presenting ourselves as the global standard bearers of democracy. As Brave New Ballot shows, there is a lot of shame going around.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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