Votes gone walkabout after Australian election voting flaw

News by Adrian Bridgwater

With the UK general election only weeks away now, a security flaw has surfaced in the Australian state of New South Wales that may have left votes susceptible to interception and manipulation.

As many as 66,000 votes in the New South Wales state election 2015 could have been tampered with. The election was held on  28 March 2015 and is now closed.

Electronic assurances

Voters used the iVote system which is described by its makers as “private, secure and verifiable” in its operation. Further, the Australian Electoral Commission insists that all Internet votes are and were “fully encrypted and safeguarded” at this time.

The iVote system is a form of voting where eligible voters can vote over the Internet or telephone as an alternative to voting at a physical polling station. Security is provided using an 8-digit iVote number, a 6-digit PIN and a 12-digit receipt number for each individual.

Australia is arguably a perfect test case for electronic voting with its vast distances that prevent some voters from getting to a polling location. A system like this also benefits the disabled and other less mobile voters.

However, the system has been derided by non-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “The problem is that the system was not ready to be one of the biggest online voting experiments in the world.”

EFF's Farbod Faraji says that a FREAK flaw has been discovered in the Australian system by Michigan Computer Science Professor J Alex Halderman and University of Melbourne Research Fellow Vanessa Teague.

What could happen here if an attacker were to hack a vote is classic behaviour for a FREAK SSL/TLS protocol Man-in-the-Middle (MiTM) attack; votes could be intercepted, changed or manipulated and then covered over leaving no trace of manipulation. Commentators have been quick to suggest that this problem is potentially huge in its scope for social impact.

Big Brother has been watching us

In response to this revelation, one disgruntled anonymous individual comments on the Schneier on Security blog as follows, “These 'National Security' Internet injectors could already have helped certain powerful people remain in power. Votes could be switched, polls could be manipulated, the media could be fooled and democracy destroyed – all in the name of national security.”

Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, insists that “current systems lack auditability” as we stand in 2015. “There's no way to independently confirm their correct functioning and that the outcomes accurately reflect the will of the voters while maintaining voter privacy and the secret ballot.”

Too little, too soon?

San Diego-based Smith goes on to say that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal agency directed by the US Congress to examine and set standards for online voting, has concluded that secure Internet voting is “currently not feasible” and that more research is needed.

CEO of High-Tech Bridge Ilia Kolochenko isn't convinced, "I think that the news is much exaggerated, as is the reaction of the parties,” he told

Kolochenko continues, “Practically speaking, hackers would rather target the server itself than the communication channels between voters and the server - it will be much more efficient. And finally, the investment required to make such a manipulation without being noticed would easily cover the cost in gaining the same votes legally via a good voting campaign.”

Paco Hope is principal consultant at software security consultancy Cigital. He was a voting official in Fairfax County, Virginia for four elections (2004 to 2008) and was the ‘chief of a precinct' during the 2008 USA presidential election. He has performed source code analysis of several commercial voting systems (intended to be used in-precinct, not on the Internet).

Hope spoke to SC to say that, “Building software securely requires a bit of security effort throughout the lifecycle and ongoing improvement. Voting, by contrast, has long periods during which systems are not used at all, followed by an intense period of use that must be right on the first go.”

“The security demands of Internet voting resemble launching spacecraft more than they resemble online shopping. I don't think most legislators are prepared to spend space launch budgets to achieve something they perceive as online shopping,” concluded Hope.

The BBC this January reported comments stating that people should be able to choose to vote online in the 2020 general election, according to a commission set up by Commons speaker John Bercow. The facts so far suggest that it is early days for eVoting, but equally early days for eVote hacking.

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