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Vulnerable to Hackers and Errors

The wide examples here show that hacks and software errors can be reduced but not prevented. The only protection is to detect errors and recover, which means independently checking the counts. Reputable software has hundreds of bugs, and annual updates have bugs. Chinese, Russians, other countries, and organized crime have infiltrated everywhere worth infiltrating. Policy makers need a broader, longer term view than software designers.

 

Contents of This Page

A. Election Machine Errors

B. Election Hacking, With Unknown Results

C. Best-Defended Industries

D. Future Hacks

A. ELECTION MACHINE ERRORS

  1. In a 2019 election in Northampton county, Pennsylvania, the software under-counted one candidate by 99%, reporting 164 votes, compared to 26,142 found in a subsequent hand-count, which changed the candidate's loss to a win.
  2. In a 2019 election in Israel, software errors created erroneous results.
  3. In South Carolina every election from 2010-2018 had some memory cards fail. In 2010 and 2018, programming errors meant at least 420 votes were erroneously added to a different contest in the central tally. There were also votes lost by garbled transmissions, which the state election commission saw but did not report as an issue. 49 machines reported that their three internal memory counts disagreed, an average of 240 errors per machine, but the machines stayed in use, and the state evaluation did not report the issue, and there were other error codes and time stamp errors.
  4. In a 2017 York County, Pennsylvania, election, a programming error let voters vote twice for the same candidate. This happened 2,904 times.
  5. In a 2016 Maryland election, a comparison of two scanning systems on the same ballots revealed that (a) 1,972 ballot images were incorrectly left out of one system, (b) one system incorrectly ignored many votes for write-in candidates, (c) shadows from paper folds were sometimes interpreted as names written in on the ballot, (d) the scanner sometimes pulled two ballots at once, scanning only the top one, (e) the ballot printers sometimes left off certain candidates, (f) voters often put a check or X instead of filling in an oval, which software has to adapt to, and (g) a scratch or dirt on a scanner sensor put a black line on many ballot images, causing the appearance of voting for more than the allowed number of candidates, so those votes were incorrectly ignored.
  6. In a 2011 Fairfield Township, New Jersey, election a programming error gave two candidates low counts. They collected more affidavits by voters who voted for them than the computer tally gave them, so a judge ordered a new election which they won.
  7. In a 2004 Yakima, Washington, election 24 voters' choices on 4 races were ignored by a faulty scanner which created a white streak down the ballot.
  8. In a 2000 Bernalillo County (Albuquerque area), New Mexico, election, a programming error meant that straight-party votes on paper ballots were not counted for the individual candidates. The number of ballots was thus much larger than the number of votes in each contest. The software was fixed, and the ballots were re-scanned to get correct counts.

 

B. ELECTION HACKING, WITH UNKNOWN RESULTS

1.     As of 2019, researchers have found security flaws in all election computers, which let voters, staff members or outsiders disrupt or change results, often without detection.

2.     Through 2019, Russia has sent billions of dollars on a decade of work to create broad-based new ways to attack election computers (zero days), using independent teams so they don't reveal each other's methods.

3.     In July 2018 the FBI told Maryland officials that a local web hosting company they used for voter registration, candidacy, online ballot delivery, and election results had been owned since 2015 (or 2011) by a company financed by Vladimir Potanin, a Russian oligarch close to Putin. The manager is a Russian millionaire, Guerman Aliev, who took an American name, Gerald T. Banks. Maryland's Senate President said the FBI "weren't really anxious for us to come forward" to tell the public (quote is at 6:54 in video). FBI also told state officials in 2017 not to tell the public about foreign intrusion attempts (pages 146-151 of court filing).

4.     In March 2018 the security site CSO found on the dark web over 100 emails of workers at one of the largest companies making and programming election machines, ES&S, and smaller numbers at smaller voting machine companies. They also found passwords for the accounts, though the companies said these passwords did not meet their current standards, so would have been changed. Nevertheless with valid emails, attackers can spray password variations until they log in on at least one of the accounts and install malware. Hackers share tips on the dark web.

5.     From August 2017 to March 2018 Georgia's election software was on the public web without passwords or encryption (pages 140-143, 153-163 of court filing, news).

6.     In August 2017 the biggest manufacturer of voting machines, Election Systems & Software, created a public file on Amazon Web Services with "encrypted versions of passwords for ES&S employee accounts. The encryption was strong enough to keep out a casual hacker but by no means impenetrable...The worse-case scenario is that they could be completely infiltrated right now".

7.     In May 2019 the FBI told Florida officials 2 counties' voter registration systems had been penetrated by Russia in 2016. The FBI could not say if the Russians changed the files, and only revealed anything because the Mueller Report did. The counties were Washington and one other.

8.     In 2016, "We can assume that the majority of states were probably a target... I want to make clear today on the record, it's likely that all 50 states were likely affected... Every organization is scanned a lot, sometimes thousands of times a day. What we were trying to differentiate between: we saw very concerning activity from known suspicious servers in this case... They were targeting to look for vulnerabilities... Probably tried all the states. These are the states we could see they were trying. That's right." ~US Department of Homeland Security Senate hearing at 41 minutes.

9.     They attacked "in alphabetical order by state name... voter registration and election results sites... to identify and exploit SQL database vulnerabilities in webservers and databases. The FBI and DHS... noted that they had no information on how many of those attempts were successful, aside from two instances"

10.  August 24, 2016, hackers sent phishing emails to seven workers at VR Systems, which provides voter registration systems and election-night reporting. "At least one of the employee accounts was likely compromised." Then on October 27 they used VR Systems credentials to send phishing emails to 122 local election officials. If they opened it, it installed malware which opened a persistent back door into the computer. At least 10 computers were harmed (¶77b). The government has not said and may not know what the hackers did with their back door. Mueller's indictment July 13, 2018 confirms these events (¶73-77) and adds that the hackers targeted more than one election company (¶69). 2 years after the election, the press revealed that VR Systems had a common practice of remotely accessing county election systems, to troubleshoot them, up to the day before the election.

11.  Also in 2016 hackers sent emails pretending to be from another election vendor, offering "election-related products and services." The same hackers sent emails to election workers in American Samoa "mimicking a legitimate absentee ballot-related service provider." NSA does not know what they accomplished with any of these attacks.

12.  In 2016 Georgia, Indiana and Idaho said the US Dept. of Homeland Security tried to bypass firewalls in election systems without permission. Kentucky and West Virginia said DHS probes of their systems were not malicious.

13.  Ukraine's 2014 election results were hacked, but officials removed a virus and believe they had correct totals. South Africa's 1994 election was hacked, and officials hand-compiled the counts, as noted at right.

14.  A 2007 study for the Ohio Secretary of State reported on election software from ES&S, Premier and Hart. Besides specific problems it found, it noted that all "election systems rely heavily on third party software that implement interfaces to the operating systems, local databases, and devices such as optical scanners... the construction and features of this software is unknown, and may contain undisclosed vulnerabilities such trojan horses or other malware."

 

C. BEST-DEFENDED INDUSTRIES

This list shows that election machines will never be bug-proof or hack-proof, since they happen at even the best-defended industries. Hacks and bugs can be reduced but not prevented. The only protection is to detect errors and recover, which means independently checking election tallies.

1.     Domain registrars for entire countries in 2018-19, letting hackers spy on and change emails and web results throughout the country. The registrars succumbed to phishing.

2.     Phone calls for several years up to 2019

3.     Homeland Security in 2019, through a contractor

4.     Attacks rising in 2018

5.     Encryption hacked by NSA and Germany 1960s-2018, first seen in 1995

6.     Chinese hacked most of the biggest providers of cloud computing in 2010-2017, including IBM, 224 systems at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Computer Sciences Corp, Fujitsu, Tata Consultancy, NTT Data, and many other firms through them, including the US Navy's biggest shipbuilder (incl. nuclear submarines), Sabre reservations for thousands of hotels and hundreds of airlines (so they could surveil all traveling executives), Ericsson telecoms, biotech firm Syngenta, which was then bought by Chinese. Hacks continued to succeed even after they were noticed and defenses mounted. They gathered hundreds of login credentials. Many hacked companies were not told, and if told they denied they lost anything.

7.     Amazon, Apple, and almost 30 other companies probably had extra Chinese chips placed on servers 2015-2018, giving backdoor access to the Chinese. Reviewers say backdoors can be hidden better inside chips which are supposed to be there.

8.     Electric grid air-gapped computers hacked in 2014, 2016-2018 (and US in 2019 Russian grid)

9.     CIA air-gapped computers in 2017

10.  NSA air-gapped computers in 2016, followup in 2017

11.  CIA in 2011-15 had "A major concern... that the Russians were collecting information from a breach of computers not connected to the Internet... The CIA had already figured out how to perform similar operations themselves."

12.  "Deloitte in 2017

13.  FBI in 2011-2016 radio encryption decrypted by Russia

14.  DoD in 2007, Jan and June 2015, 2016, so DoD pays bug bounties. In 2018, GAO staff "were able to take control of [DOD weapons] systems relatively easily and operate largely undetected." Alarms went off so often the operators ignored them.

15.  Securities and Exchange Commission in 2016

16.  OPM security clearances in 2015 (details)

17.  Mozilla in 2015

18.  General Electric/Safran aircraft engine designs hacked by China 2010-2015

19.  Boeing (jet fighters) in 2008-2014

20.  1,000 oil and gas companies in 84 countries, 2012-2014

21.  Nuclear and other companies in 2006-2014

22.  Google in 2010, 2014, so they pay bug bounties

23.  Microsoft in 2000, 2013, and can be slow to protect customers

24.  Military contractors in 2007-2010 and 2013

25.  Symantec in 2012

26.  State lotteries in 2005-2011 (CO, IA, KS, OK, WI; security director sentenced in 2017)

 

D. FUTURE HACKS

  1. There is standardized malware to enter air-gapped computers, by hiding in files on thumb drives, in case the drive is later taken to an air-gapped computer, such as updates for voting machines. It was developed by hackers who are believed to work for South Korea.
  2. In 2019, CIA chief of counterintelligence said, "Russians are a professionally proficient adversary who have historically penetrated every American institution worth penetrating."
  3. In 2015, FBI director said, "there are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who've been hacked by the Chinese and those who don't know they've been hacked by the Chinese." If Chinese can hack big companies, they can hack election offices to help some candidates win or lose.
  4. In 2011, the director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' forensic services practice said, "you have to assume you've been compromised" by the cyber Mafia.
  5. An NSA official told a Washington Post reporter, "Russians, Chinese, French, the Israelis, the Brits...  full-fledged nation-state attempt to exploit your IT. To include not just remote stuff, but hands-on, sneak-into-your-house-at-night kind of stuff... If some of those services want you, they’re going to get you." It turned out the reporter had also been hacked by Turkey, while India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, North and South Korea also use expert hackers. Would any of these countries want to defeat members of Congressional committees on armed services, foreign affairs or trade, by hacking one or two large election offices in their districts? If caught they'd blame and even arrest their "rogue" private citizens.
  6. "Every piece of commercial software... has hundreds if not thousands of vulnerabilities, most of them undiscovered." Over 100,000 software vulnerabilities are publicly known (besides zero-days, which are not public). Many thousands have been found by each big web company, such as Oracle, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Adobe, Qualcomm. Over a thousand companies pay bounties for bugs. Election companies are not immune. "The potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life" Scanning ballots will let us recover.
  7. What the FBI said about hacking emails applies widely: "we don’t have direct evidence that the server was successfully hacked. We wouldn’t, though, expect to see that evidence from sophisticated adversaries, given the nature of the adversary and given the nature of the system."
  8. Wired says, "the average time between a malware infection and discovery of the attack is more than 200 days, a gap that has barely narrowed in recent years. 'We can’t operate with the mindset that everything has to be about keeping them out,' says Rich Barger, ThreatConnect’s chief intelligence officer. 'We have to operate knowing that they’re going to get inside sometimes. The question is, how do we limit their effectiveness and conduct secure business operations knowing they’re watching?' Accomplishing that means building networks that are designed to limit a hacker’s ability to maneuver and creating better ways to detect anomalous behavior by allegedly authorized users.
  9. Even in key industries, companies leave clickable links in incoming emails. On average 4% of recipients open any particular phishing message, and 22% open at least one per year. At 4%, sending a phishing message to 30 recipients gives a 70% chance that someone will open it. Even at 1%, sending to 120 recipients gives a 70% chance that someone will open it. There is no reliable way to tell phishing emails from legitimate emails. When people think an email looks suspicious, and send it for checking, 90% are "legitimate" (p.5 Phishing 2018), which means most people cannot tell them apart. Sending them for checking simply prevents access to the 90% which are legitimate, since checkers rarely send them back. At a minimum, staff in key industries who click on a test phishing email need all clickable links removed from future incoming emails.
  10. The FDA recalls insecure medical devices. No one recalls insecure election machines.
  11. Protect, Detect, Respond Recover. We must strengthen all four steps.