SERVE Report - New Report to May 2007 DoD Report

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A comment on the May 2007 DoD report on Voting Technologies for UOCAVA Citizens

David Jefferson1, Avi Rubin2, Barbara Simons3

We have reviewed the Department of Defense report titled "Expanding the Use of Electronic

Voting Technology for UOCAVA Citizens" of May 2007. We find the report quite troubling.

Although the report describes many laudable ways to simplify voting for overseas Americans, it

also appears fundamentally to be advocating for “a complete Internet voting system”, i.e. one that

allows voters to cast their ballots on their own PCs and transmit them to the home jurisdiction

over the Internet. The report estimates that it would take between 24 and 60 months to develop

such a system, depending on recommendations and guidelines.

In 2003 the Department of Defense engaged our services to review its SERVE Internet voting

project. The project was subsequently killed because of the numerous and fundamental security

problems with it that we documented in a report we issued in 2004

( We are concerned that this new report appears to be trying

to persuade readers that SERVE was a successful project and that Internet voting can be made

safe and secure. Unfortunately, it does not accurately reflect the degree of concern that we and

many others have expressed about Internet voting.

The new report includes (page 12) only the following selective quote from our report:

        We want to make it clear that in recommending that SERVE be shut down, we mean no

        criticism of the FVAP, or of Accenture, or any of its personnel or subcontractors. They

        have been completely aware all along of the security problems we described, and we

        have been impressed with the engineering sophistication and skills they have devoted to

        attempts to ameliorate or eliminate daunting security problems. We do not believe that a

        differently constituted project could do any better job than the current team.

These are about the only lines in our entire report that were not critical of the SERVE project.

Those comments were intended to soften an otherwise harsh assessment, and to make it clear that

it was the technology, rather than the people, that we were criticizing. The immediately

following sentences from our report were not quoted, but they more accurately reflect the report

as a whole:  

       The real barrier to success is not a lack of vision, skill, resources, or dedication; it is the

       fact that, given the current Internet and PC security technology, and the goal of a secure,

       all-electronic remote voting system, the FVAP has taken on an essentially impossible

       task. There really is no good way to build such a voting system without a radical change

       in overall architecture of the Internet and the PC, or some unforeseen security


In fact, no such security breakthrough has occurred, and we remain convinced that there is no

way to secure Internet voting. Perhaps that is why the new DoD report resorts in some places to

buzzwords instead of substance. For example, the report claims that roaming digital certificates

will be used to combat certain threats. While that may sound good to general audiences, the use

of such certificates does not address any of the serious problems identified in our SERVE report.

The IVAS system, deployed in 2006, was a modest successor to SERVE. Although it was

reviewed favorably in the DoD report, it actually is more insecure than SERVE. IVAS involved

email and fax and did not provide any encryption or authentication of ballots. Several parties,

including an independent contractor, were in a position to tamper with or destroy ballots before

they were received by local election officials. The DoD report cites surveys of local election

officials saying that they would use IVAS again. But while such surveys may indicate interest by

officials, they say absolutely nothing about whether such a system is actually secure. We believe

it is not.

The current Internet and PC architectures are both such highly insecure platforms that it is

essentially impossible to develop a secure system for voting in federal elections on them. From

time to time some person or company claims to have “solved” the security problems of Internetbased

elections. Such solutions typically deal only with some of the easier issues (voter

authentication, secure ballot transmission) by using various encryption mechanisms. Invariably,

the most difficult vulnerabilities are ignored, defined away, or addressed with ineffective

gestures. Such vulnerabilities include insider attacks of various kinds, phishing attacks, DNS

attacks, spoofing attacks, viral and backdoor attacks, distributed denial of service attacks, and

automated vote buying and selling schemes. The purported mitigations listed on page 12 of the

DoD report are examples of ineffective gestures; reading that list makes one wonder if the authors

fully understand the gravity and complexity of the security issues.

Most of the security problems with Internet voting are generic to any PC and Internet application,

and fundamentally have no effective solutions. This is why the majority of all email transmitted

over the Internet is spam, and an estimated 50% of all Internet-connected PCs in the world are

infected with malicious software, despite more than a decade of effort and immense investment

by the world’s high technology companies in trying to fix these problems. It is not just that no

solution to the problems of Internet voting has yet been deployed. The real problem is that no

fundamental solution is possible using the current Internet protocols and the current PC hardware

and software platforms. We do not anticipate that the changes in the design of Internet and in PC

hardware and software needed to support secure elections will be forthcoming within the

foreseeable future, and certainly not within the five year time span contemplated in this report.

In our 2004 report we made the case against the SERVE Internet voting system. However, those

arguments actually apply to any Internet voting system, and so we repeat them here (in slightly

updated form):

   a) Paperless electronic voting systems have been widely criticized elsewhere for various

      deficiencies and security vulnerabilities: that their software is totally closed and

      proprietary; that the software undergoes insufficient scrutiny during certification; that

      they are especially vulnerable to various forms of insider (programmer) attacks; and that

      they have no voter-verified audit trails (paper or otherwise) that could largely circumvent

      these problems and improve voter confidence. All of these criticisms apply directly to

      Internet voting systems as well.

   b) In addition, Internet voting systems have numerous other fundamental security problems
      that generally leave them vulnerable to a variety of well-known cyber attacks (insider

      attacks, denial of service attacks, spoofing, automated vote buying, viral attacks, etc.),

      any one of which could be catastrophic.

   c) Such attacks could occur on a very large-scale, and could be launched by anyone in the

      world, from a disaffected lone individual to a well-financed enemy agency outside the

      reach of U.S. law. These attacks could result in widespread, selective voter

      disenfranchisement, and/or privacy violation, and/or vote buying and selling, and/or vote

      switching, even to the extent of reversing the outcome of many elections at once,

      including the presidential election. With care in the design, some of the attacks could

      succeed and yet go completely undetected. Even if detected and neutralized, such attacks

      could have a devastating effect on public confidence in elections.

  d) It is impossible to estimate the probability of a successful cyber-attack (or multiple

     successful attacks) on any one election. But the attacks we are most concerned about are

     quite easy to perpetrate. In some cases there are kits readily available on the Internet that

     could be modified or used directly for attacking an election. And we must consider the

     obvious fact that a U.S. general election offers one of the most tempting targets for cyberattack

     ever, whether the attacker’s motive is overtly political or simply selfaggrandizement.

  e) The vulnerabilities we describe cannot be fixed by better design of Internet voting

     software. They are fundamental in the architecture of the Internet and of PCs and their

     software. They cannot be eliminated for the foreseeable future. It is quite likely that they

     will never be eliminated without a wholesale redesign and replacement of much of the

     hardware and software security systems that are part of, or connected to, today’s Internet.

  f) An Internet voting system might appear to work flawlessly in 2008, or whenever it is first

     deployed, with no successful attacks detected. Unfortunately, but inevitably, a seemingly

     successful Internet voting experiment in a U.S. presidential election would be viewed by

     many as strong evidence that Internet voting can be reliable, robust, and secure. Such

     reasoning is as fallacious as a claim that our cities are safe from “dirty bomb” attacks

     because we have been living in cities for a long time and no such attack has ever

     occurred. Any apparently successful election using Internet voting would encourage

     expansion of the idea in future elections, as well as the marketing of Internet voting

     systems to jurisdictions throughout the United States and in other countries.

  g) Just because no successful attack is detected does not mean that none has occurred.

     Unlike military attacks, many cyber attacks, especially if cleverly hidden, would be

     extremely difficult or impossible to detect, even in cases when they change the outcome

     of a major election. Furthermore, the lack of a successful attack in one election does not

     mean that successful attacks would be less likely to happen in the future. Quite the

     contrary; future attacks would be more likely, both because there is more time to prepare

     the attack, and because expanded use of Internet voting would make the prize of a

     successful attack more valuable. In other words, a “successful” trial of Internet voting is

     the top of a slippery slope toward even more vulnerable systems in the future.

  h) We certainly believe that there should be better support for voting for our military and for

     citizens living overseas. Unfortunately, we are forced to conclude that it would be a very

     serious mistake to deploy an Internet voting system. Because the danger of successful,

     large-scale attacks is so great, we reluctantly recommend against any Internet voting until

     both the Internet and the world’s home computer infrastructure have been fundamentally


Compounding these problems, companies selling Internet voting systems almost invariably claim

that the software is proprietary, and refuse to permit examination and evaluation of their systems

by independent experts. We fully expect that if this project goes forward, whatever company

wins the contract will make exaggerated security claims, as others have in the past, and decline to

permit independent experts to attempt to verify those claims and publish the results.

We understand the importance of providing military and overseas U.S. citizens with the best

possible access to absentee voting. Many of these people are putting their lives on the line to

protect our country, and we support many of the measures in the new DoD report that will make

voting easier for them. But, we would do them no favor by providing them with a flagrantly

insecure and inauditable method of voting. We believe it would be irresponsible to put our

democracy at risk by allowing votes to be transmitted over the wide-open and insecure Internet.


1 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,

2 Professor of Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University,

3 IBM Research (retired), Former President, Association for Computing Machinery,

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