Diebold voting machines

Posted by: oenophore

Diebold voting machines - 11/04/06 12:12 PM

“Hotel Minibar” Keys Open Diebold Voting Machines

Monday September 18, 2006 by Ed Felten

Like other computer scientists who have studied Diebold voting machines, we were surprised at the apparent carelessness of Diebold’s security design. It can be hard to convey this to nonexperts, because the examples are technical. To security practitioners, the use of a fixed, unchangeable encryption key and the blind acceptance of every software update offered on removable storage are rookie mistakes; but nonexperts have trouble appreciating this. Here is an example that anybody, expert or not, can appreciate:

The access panel door on a Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine — the door that protects the memory card that stores the votes, and is the main barrier to the injection of a virus — can be opened with a standard key that is widely available on the Internet.

On Wednesday we did a live demo for our Princeton Computer Science colleagues of the vote-stealing software described in our paper and video. Afterward, Chris Tengi, a technical staff member, asked to look at the key that came with the voting machine. He noticed an alphanumeric code printed on the key, and remarked that he had a key at home with the same code on it. The next day he brought in his key and sure enough it opened the voting machine.

This seemed like a freakish coincidence — until we learned how common these keys are.

Chris’s key was left over from a previous job, maybe fifteen years ago. He said the key had opened either a file cabinet or the access panel on an old VAX computer. A little research revealed that the exact same key is used widely in office furniture, electronic equipment, jukeboxes, and hotel minibars. It’s a standard part, and like most standard parts it’s easily purchased on the Internet. We bought several keys from an office furniture key shop — they open the voting machine too. We ordered another key on eBay from a jukebox supply shop. The keys can be purchased from many online merchants.

Using such a standard key doesn’t provide much security, but it does allow Diebold to assert that their design uses a lock and key. Experts will recognize the same problem in Diebold’s use of encryption — they can say they use encryption, but they use it in a way that neutralizes its security benefits.

The bad guys don’t care whether you use encryption; they care whether they can read and modify your data. They don’t care whether your door has a lock on it; they care whether they can get it open. The checkbox approach to security works in press releases, but it doesn’t work in the field.