SALON: Princeton University study demonstrates how Diebold's machines can be hacked

September 13, 2006
Brad Friedman
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Having reported extensively on the security concerns that surround the use of electronic voting machines, I anxiously awaited the results of a new study of a Diebold touch-screen voting system, conducted by Princeton University. The Princeton computer scientists obtained the Diebold system with cooperation from VelvetRevolution, an umbrella organization of more than 100 election integrity groups, which I co-founded a few months after the 2004 election. We acquired the Diebold system from an independent source and handed it over to university scientists so that, for the first time, they could analyze the hardware, software and firmware of the controversial voting system. Such an independent study had never been allowed by either Diebold or elections officials.

The results of that study, released this morning, are troubling, to say the least. They confirm many of the concerns often expressed by computer scientists and security experts, as well as election integrity activists, that electronic voting — and indeed our elections — may now be exceedingly vulnerable to the malicious whims of a single individual.

The study reveals that a computer virus can be implanted on an electronic voting machine that, in turn, could result in votes flipped for opposing candidates. According to the study, a vote for George Washington could be easily converted to a vote for Benedict Arnold, and neither the voter, nor the election officials administering the election, would ever know what happened. The virus could also be written to spread from one machine to the next and the malfeasance would likely never be discovered, the scientists said. The study was released along with a videotape demonstration.

“We’ve demonstrated that malicious code can spread like a virus from one voting machine to another, which means that a bad guy who can get access to a few machines — or only one — can infect one machine, which could infect another, stealing a few votes on each in order to steal an entire election,” said the study’s team leader, Edward W. Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton.