Newly released video shows how easily electronic voting machines can be hacked, pried open
John Byrne
Published: Tuesday September 9, 2008

Print This  Email This

Test of company's software recently double-counted thousands of votes

A newly released video depicts an eerie scenario in which voting machines produce an XXXXXX result for the ballot position of US senator after a vote is placed and then replaces the XXXXXX with an individual's name.

Though it appears to be part of an eerie low-budget sci-fi thriller, the producers weren't B-movie conspiracy theorists. Instead, they were students from the University of Santa Barbara's Security Group, participating in a project commissioned by the California Secretary of State.

Why the video was posted now despite the fact that the project took place last year remains unknown. It may have its roots in a legal threat issued by the voting machines' manufacturer in March. In a sharply worded letter to a Princeton research team that had audited their machines before, Edwin Smith, the VP for "Compliance/Quality/Certification," said that the publication of any security audit of "Sequoia software [or] its behavior" would force the company to "take appropriate steps" through its "retained counsel."

In the film, included below, students demonstrate uploading a virus-like program to a voting terminal by inserting a data card and pressing a key. They then proceed through the voting process -- selecting candidates and approving ballot issues. Following their votes, the machine spits out a paper receipt.

The receipt correctly displays the student's choices. But a moment later, it spits out a second receipt, topped "VOID," which has replaced the student's senatorial selection with XXXXXX. The following receipt replaces XXXXXX with James P. 'Jim' Gray.

The student project also reveals the system's vulnerability to hacking the machines' internal workings. One student is able to slip one of the virus-implanting cards into a theoretically "sealed" machine simply by peeling back the flap.

Sealed machines opened up in seconds

A physically sealed machine is opened and hacked in just 18 seconds.

A second machine is unscrewed in less than a minute.

A piece of sheet metal holding on the door is removed in several minutes with a simple Phillips head screwdriver.

It's possible the letter from Sequoia's Smith has succeeded in keeping some audits of the company's software off the national radar. In his letter to the Princeton professors who'd planned an audit of the company's voting machines, the firm all but threatens a lawsuit.

"As you have likely read in the news media, certain New Jersey election officials have stated that they plan to send to you one or more Sequoia Advantage voting machines for analysis," Smith writes. "I want to make you aware that if the County does so, it violates their established Sequoia licensing Agreement for use of the voting system. Sequoia has also retained counsel to stop any infringement of our intellectual properties, including any non-compliant analysis. We will also take appropriate steps to protect against any publication of Sequoia software, its behavior, reports regarding same or any other infringement of our intellectual property."

Sequoia reemerged in the news late last month after votes were double counted during a test in Florida. Yesterday, the company blamed the glitch on "operator error."

"Procedures by the poll workers and the Supervisor's office staff proved to be good," Sequoia asserted. "The hardware and software performed as it should. The accuracy will be confirmed at a later date. The reason that the vote totals doubled in these 40 precincts was due to an inadvertent operator error.

The California students' video was picked up Tuesday by the blog BoingBoing.