3rd Party Risk Management , Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Endpoint Security

Election Security: A Harsh Assessment

Security Researcher, CISA Director Raise Serious Concerns
Election Security: A Harsh Assessment
Security researcher Matt Blaze gives keynote address. (Photo: Black Hat 2020)

Voting equipment in the U.S. is still riddled with security flaws that opportunistic foreign adversaries could use to pose a threat to the November election. That’s the conclusion of a paper by security researcher Matt Blaze released at Black Hat 2020 this week.

See Also: Webinar | 2023 OT Cybersecurity Year in Review: Lessons Learned from the Frontlines

Meanwhile, Christopher Krebs, director of U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in a presentation at the same virtual event that ransomware attacks by Russian adversaries are one of the biggest threats to the November election.

"When we look in certain corners of the world where the Russians are active, we can figure out what they're going after there, so we can bring that understanding back here and harden, spend that last dollar," Krebs said.

In his keynote address, Blaze called upon the tech community to help secure the elections.

"So our expertise in this community is central to many of the problems that we have here. And I think the optimistic note is that we can do this, but we need to engage now," he said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State's Rewards for Justice announced a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of any person who works with or for a foreign government with the intent of interfering with U.S. elections through certain illegal cyber activities.

Vulnerabilities Listed

In his paper, "Election Integrity And Technology: Vulnerabilities and Solution," Blaze, a professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University, highlights a range of exploitable security flaws in the election infrastructure.

Blaze says a variety of voting machines contain vulnerabilities. Plus, he points to other risks, including software bugs in an electronic poll book and poorly secured county election offices.

Blaze warns that adversaries could exploit flaws, load malicious software and gain access to administrative passwords, which could lead to vote tampering.

"Simply put, much of our election infrastructure remains vulnerable to practical attack, with threats that range from traditional election tampering in local races to large-scale disruption by national adversaries," Blaze says.

Blaze also raises concerns about the logistics of handling mass quantities of mail-in ballots.

Risks in Voting Components

In the paper, Blaze says that much of the computerized voting equipment deployed in the United States has security vulnerabilities. The devices include:

  • Election Management IT Systems: Used for election administration, these include voter registration systems, ballot forms and tools for ballot configuration and reading votes. Because much of this equipment is based on hardware and operating systems that are directly or indirectly connected to the internet, Blaze says they are all exposed to the same type of risks. Foreign adversaries potentially can exploit vulnerable networks at local election facilities to compromise voter registration databases to alter voter tallies, the paper states.
  • Electronic Poll Books: These use internal or online voter registration databases to perform the check-in process at polling places. The study notes attackers can target the connected network to corrupt the databases and possibly prevent voters from casting ballots. At the 2019 DEF CON Voting Village event, which gave ethical hackers access to voting equipment, it was found that Toshiba's ES&S Electronic Pollbook System could be hacked through its built-in printer and a smart card reader (see: Report: US Voting Machines Still Prone to Hacking).
  • Optical Scan Ballot Readers: These computers scan and retain printed ballots. Blaze's study notes that any bugs in their software and hardware components can lead to incorrect interpreting of ballots.
  • Ballot-Marking Devices: An attacker could use compromised ballot-marking devices to subtly mismark the ballots without the voters noting any changes, Blaze says. In a separate study, researchers found that OmniBallot, a ballot-marking device used in Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia, contained security flaws that could enable hackers to access and manipulate voter data (see: Academic Study Finds Security Flaws in Online Voting Tool).
  • Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines: The paper notes these devices pose risks because they rely on memory cards to store and present ballots to voters and record the vote. Attackers can exploit any vulnerabilities present in these components to load malicious software to alter or delete vote and ballot tallies stored in the memory card or any removable media, Blaze says.

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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