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Wednesday, September 5th, 2007...7:53




Voice of the Voters: Transcript of Matt Blaze Interview


By Mary Ann Gould




Transcript of Matt Blaze, and Mary Ann Gould on Voice of the Voters!

Dr. Matt Blaze of the University of Pennsylvania and leader of the Sequoia source code review team for California’s Top to Bottom Electronic Voting Investigation

August 8, 2007


MAG: Good evening, Dr. Blaze. We’re glad to have you here, especially with all the notoriety that is going around the country about the top-to-bottom study in California.


MB: Glad to be here.


MAG: I noticed on your blog, which is excellent,, you noted that you found significant, deeply rooted weaknesses in all three of the vendors’ software. Then you went on to talk about the red team and their finding significant problems because of built-in security mechanisms that they were up against—that they simply don’t work properly.


MB: That’s right. I should start by telling you a little bit about what we did, and what my role in it was. So, the California Secretary of State, Debra Bowen, this Spring, put together a study of the electronic voting technology that’s used in her state, that’s primarily four systems made by Diebold, Sequoia, Hart, and ES&S. What she did is went to the University of California to two professors, one at UC Berkley, David Wagner, and another at UC Davis, Matt Bishop, and asked them to put together teams to review each of these systems in various ways. And in particular, one of the teams was to review the source code of the systems—the programs that run on the voting computers, and on the vote tallying computers back at the county election’s headquarters. And another team was to attempt to use any vulnerabilities that were found to see if these could be exploited to interfere with the proper tallying of votes or interfere in the election, in some way. Now, my role in this was to lead the team that looked at the source code for one of the systems, the Sequoia system, and our reports, the red team reports, and the source code review reports were submitted to the state a few weeks ago, and they’re up on the Secretary of State’s website. So, my role was to basically look at the Sequoia system’s source code and see if there were any security problems in it—to do a security review of the software. Now, after we finished, all the reports found particular problems that were particular to the various systems. There was an overall similarity among them, which is that all three of the reviewed systems (one of the systems wasn’t reviewed; they didn’t submit their source code in time, that was the ES&S system), of the three systems that were reviewed, Diebold, Sequoia and Hart, all of the teams that looked at them just found that the software mechanisms that are intended to secure the systems can be defeated very, very easily. They just don’t work very well, at all. Because of that, the red teams that were to try to penetrate these systems and tamper with election results in a simulated environment had a relatively easy time of it. They were able to succeed at almost everything they tried.


MAG: Now, you indicated that what you found, even in the code alone, was far more pervasive and much more easily exploitable than you had ever imagined it would be. What did you mean by that?


MB: That’s right. It would be unfair to expect any large system to be completely perfect, and really nobody expects that any large software project is going to be completely free of mistakes or bugs or even little security problems. And in fact, election systems are designed with procedures that are intended to tolerate a certain amount of weakness. So we expected that we would find some things that would be wrong. What really surprised me, and I think surprised all of us, was just how deeply rooted the problems were. It wasn’t simply that there were some mechanisms that could be beefed up or that weren’t as good as they could have been, but that every single mechanism that was intended to stop somebody from doing something just didn’t work or could be defeated very, very easily.


Now, two of the three systems, Hart and Sequoia, haven’t really been studied that widely in the public literature, in the academic literature; not much had been known about them before. But the Diebold system, various versions of that have been studied by academics, by researchers, who had found that there were problems. But even there, the problems that were found by the Diebold team included some things that hadn’t been found before.


MAG: Well, Harri Hursti, on our program, had said two things: one, that there was an overall weakness in the architecture and that basically, the equipment that he had looked at has not been built for quality.


MB: I’d say there really are two problems. This is really another way of putting that. The first, as you said: there’s a problem with the architecture, and by the architecture, what I mean is the design of the system. Even if it were built absolutely perfectly, the way it was designed puts security at a bit of a disadvantage. That is, the way these systems are designed, if you compromise one component, one voting machine somewhere, it becomes easier than it should be to interfere with the election results. The architectures of the systems aren’t designed with enough built-in checks and balances and built-in—essentially—mistrust of the possibility of mistakes to tolerate the kinds of problems that come up in any system run by people. So you can look at the overall design of these systems and tell right off the bat that this design was not as good for security as it could be. But, compounding that problem, when we actually went and looked inside these systems and looked at the source code that runs them, not only is the design weak, but the implementation itself is weak. The code has bugs in it, there are some fundamental security weaknesses that could have been avoided by better programming. So that makes that weak architecture that much worse, because the weaknesses that you might be able to exploit are just all over the place.


MAG: How did these machines get certified?


MB: There’s a federal certification process in which the design is submitted and the source code is submitted to what’s called an independent testing authority, and they look at the code and make sure, and they’re supposed to make sure, that the code is written according to certain standards. They look at the actual machines and they test them. I frankly was surprised that the systems we looked at had passed certification.


MAG: Then that’s my question. How did they get past that certification?


MB: I think you’d have to ask the testing authorities. It frankly baffles me.


MAG: Okay. Then we get to the bottom line, I guess. Are the problems fixable, or do we have systems that might be fatally flawed?


MB: I think they’re fatally flawed, and that puts us in a real bind. We can’t just postpone our elections until the technology is ready. So we really have two problems: one, which in a lot of ways is the easier of the two problems, is what do we do in the long term? How would we design a good, secure election system for use in three to five years from now? And I think there are a number of ways we might do that, and we can talk about them. But we’re still left with the problem of what will we do in November and what will we do in the primaries, and what do we do in the presidential election in 2008?


MAG: And those are very serious situations. First, I’d like to ask on DREs, direct recording electronics, or many people call them touch-screen machines: Even if we had a printer put on them, would that solve the problem?


MB: So there’s a concept with these touch-screen DRE voting machines, a concept called a voter-verified paper trail. The idea here is that votes are recorded electronically, but before you finalize casting your vote, there’s a little printer, similar to a cash register receipt printer, next to the machine, usually behind glass, that prints out the votes that the machine is recording, all the different candidates in each race it thinks you voted for. What you’re supposed to do is, before pressing the “Yes, I want to cast my vote” on the touch-screen display, you should look at that voter-verified paper trail print-out and confirm that it actually reflects your vote, and at that point, it should print out on that display “Vote confirmed, scroll forward,” and then the display on the screen will go blank and let the next person vote. So this is intended to improve the reliability and the security of these machines, because it means that there is now a paper record of what’s been voted for, so if the electronic record is tampered with, or is lost, or is challenged later on, you can go to these print-outs and count up the votes that the machines printed out. Now, this does, in fact, prevent a number of ways of attacking these machines, a number of types of vote tampering pretty well, but they’re not perfect; they don’t solve the problem as well as we’d need them to, and probably not well enough to use with the kinds of machines that we’ve seen here. The first problem is that the paper trail produced by these printers only gets counted if there’s an actual recount. It’s a very labor-intensive process to go through all the voting machines and count up each of the tallies in each of the races.


MAG: So on election night, what we get as a result has nothing to do with these paper print-outs.


MB: That’s right. These are just secondary records that are used only if there’s a recount of particular machines, so if there is no recount, then these paper trails are never looked at. So somebody would have to suspect there was a problem, or challenge the results of the election for these paper trail records to even be taken into consideration. So that’s one weakness. Another weakness is that we really don’t know that much about how voters behave with these print-outs. We don’t know if people actually look at them carefully, so if the machine is running software or firmware that’s trying to cheat, it may be able to print out invalid choices right on the printer.


MAG: And I believe that has been found.


MB: So, the behavior of voters— because you know, the voter’s looking at the screen to cast their ballot and there’s this little receipt printer, or this little cash register–type printer on the side, we don’t really know if people look at it carefully enough to tell if their choices are accurately recorded. The other problem is that in these voting machines, the printer itself—many of the characteristics of the printer—are under the control of the software running on the voting machine and so the corrupted voting machine that has bad software loaded into it by someone might be able to print out the paper trail in a very misleading way that might look acceptable to the voter but in fact actually reflects a vote for someone else. For example, it could print out the correct candidates, but then print “cancelled” below them, and then print the candidates that the machine wants to vote for.


MAG: Hmm. Now, we also have the other option with the opscan. Now that too is vulnerable. How would you compare the two?


MB: So, the optical scanning voting systems are a little different. There, rather than voting on a touch-screen, you vote by filling out a piece of paper, one of these optically scanned forms where you usually cross out with a pen or pencil something next to the candidate you want to vote for, so you actually use a paper ballot, and it’s at the voting booth. It’s just a booth; there’s no actual voting machinery where you fill out the form, it’s just a little booth you get privacy to fill out your ballot in. Then you take this ballot and feed this into a scanning device that sits on top of a ballot box and basically the scanning device reads the marks you put on the ballot and figures out who you voted for, records a tally for those candidates in those races, and deposits your ballot in the ballot box. Then, at the end of the election, the electronic results from the optical scanner and the paper ballots are sent back to the election headquarters. Now, what we found in looking again at all these systems is that it’s possible to tamper with the electronic records of optically scanned ballots that are returned from the polling place back to headquarters and change what results are recorded. So these systems, as they’re implemented, are still vulnerable to tampering, but they at least have the benefit that you still have the paper ballots that the voters voted on. And, as long as the ballot boxes are adequately secured, and somebody is watching them and they’re properly sealed, if you suspect there might have been that kind of tampering, you can go back and count the paper ballots in a secure place and find out who the voters intended to vote for.


MAG: Okay. Now, some people say that we can also solve the problem by doing a one to three percent audit. Would that work? Are there some problems that you’ve found?


MB: We didn’t look at auditing procedures in our study in any particular detail, except the procedures as used in California, as they might interact with some of the vulnerabilities that we found. So, I can tell you what they do in California is automatically recount one percent of the precinct results as a kind of safeguard, so one percent of the voting machines will have their paper ballots (if they’re an optical scan system, or if there are voter-verified paper trails) counted and matched against the electronic results that were recorded in those machines. And, if there’s a mismatch, then they know that there was some tampering with those particular machines. Now, this is actually helpful for catching deep problems that affect all of the machines. If, for example, the manufacturer of a voting machine included bad software in every machine that was sent everywhere, the one percent recount procedure would be likely to catch that because the fraud would be uniformly distributed among all of the voting machines. But what this is not as good at catching is targeted fraud where somebody goes to a particular precinct and knows that there will be, for example, a lot of votes for the candidate they don’t want to win, and arranges for those particular machines to run tampered software, which as we showed could be very easily loaded in. The safeguards to prevent that in software don’t work nearly as well as they’re intended to. Now, the one percent recount will only catch that if, by sheer luck, a chance of one in a hundred, the machines that were tampered with get selected for the audit.


MAG: So we have a serious situation. We’ve got a system that you’ve indicated is fatally flawed, the two systems available both have problems; one from your point of view has the advantage, at least, of the voter completing the ballot with their own hand, which could be counted. What, then, can we do for 2008?


MB: Again, we’re in a real bind. I don’t envy the election officials who are going to have to make some very hard decisions, coming up. Now, one thing I should emphasize: we looked only at the software and the systems themselves. We looked at the software. The red teams looked at the hardware as delivered, and tried to tamper with it, using some of the problems that we discovered with the software systems. And what we found was that the software and the hardware don’t prevent tampering. So that’s not the only set of security mechanisms in place in an election. The elections are also protected by procedures and by physical security of the machines themselves. So what our results tell you is that the security system depends entirely on those procedures. Any security that we were relying on the machines to have or the software to have, we shouldn’t assume it’s there; it’s fatally flawed. So what we’re saying is all of the security in an election depends on the security procedures and the protocols and the physical seals and the two-person control by poll workers and election officials and people watching what’s going on—that’s where all of the security comes in. Now, the problem that we have is that those procedures were designed on the assumption that the machines were offering a certain level of security to start with, but in fact they’re not. So those procedures have to be thought out from the beginning very carefully, and whether or not a practical set of procedures can be designed that actually adds security, I’m not sure.


MAG: So you’re really saying that you could have the best security procedures in the world, but if what they’re checking out has problems, it may help a little bit, but you’re still left defenseless.


MB: You have the problem that an election is a logistically very complex event. You may have a thousand polling places in a county, and thousands of poll workers who get a few hours of training and have been basically hired to work just on Election Day, and you may have half a dozen of them in any polling place, carrying out procedures that they do maybe once a year after a few hours of training. The equipment has to be distributed to these polling places; some of them are in lobbies of apartment buildings, in school gyms, sometimes even in private homes. That equipment might be delivered the night before. In some cases, it’s sent home with the poll workers, who bring it to the polling place on the morning of Election Day and basically had it in their homes overnight and had access to it completely without restriction. So building a physical security system that prevents anybody from tampering with equipment in such a complicated event and with so many people involved, this is going to be very hard.


MAG: Well, I understand the Secretary of State of California is going to institute some changes, which may include in some places a hundred percent count. Do you think we may have to do that for 2008?


MB: One of the things that the Secretary of State required was that in many cases the DRE machines all have to have their paper trails recounted—one hundred percent of them, not just one percent. That will certainly prevent certain attacks that would otherwise not be detected with just a one percent recount. They’ve limited the number of DREs for the Diebold and the Sequoia system to just one per polling place in order to accommodate voters with disabilities who can’t use the optical scan ballots without needing assistance, but who might be able to use the DRE machines, and that is intended

to reduce the scale and the number of people who’d have access to the machine throughout the day, to limit what would need to be protected and to make it easier to do that hundred percent recount. These seem like, to me, frankly, very sensible ways of mitigating this. What I’d be less confident in saying is that this is going to give you a secure election, but these seem like steps in the right direction. It’s certainly more secure than not doing these things.


MAG: Now I’ll put you on the spot: Congress is apparently finally waking up and is supposedly considering banning DREs and giving states money to replace [them] with optical scan. Would you support that?


MB: That seems, from what we’ve seen, my opinion, and I’m speaking only for myself, is that that would make me feel a lot more comfortable with the security of these elections.


MAG: But you would still like to see a fair number of procedural changes, as well.


MB: That’s right. We still need procedural changes, we still need to look at the security of the optical scan ballots, but I think the most serious problems we found, and most importantly, the ones that are hardest to correct, once they’ve happened, are the problems with the DREs.


MAG: That even raises the question, because you mentioned checks and balances, and that’s pretty important; I’m wondering if you could ever design and have a DRE system that would meet that, because a DRE system, even with a printer, would never be a separate and independent system.


MB: The disadvantage of a DRE is that the voters’ intentions—are touching a screen, this ephemeral process, that, at the end of it, you’re left with only the record produced by the machine, you’re not left with something that the voter has produced themselves, so you don’t know if it’s an accurate reflection of what they actually intended. So, DREs start from a security disadvantage right there. Now, it’s important not to confuse DREs with touch-screens.


MAG: Understood.


MB: This, I think, has been a source of considerable confusion on the issue because people often equate the nice user interface of a touch-screen, which many voters, particularly disabled voters, like quite a bit because you can, for example, have assistive devices hooked up to it that will speak in different languages, you can have sip and puff interfaces for mobility-impaired voters, and so on. These are all very important considerations, but they don’t actually require a DRE machine in order to accommodate these voters.


MAG: Do you think that we’re going to be faced in 2008 with doing a lot more hand counting to give us any security?


MB: Well, I think if we want secure elections, with the equipment at least that we looked at, we’re going to have no alternative.


MAG: Is there any reason for you to think that, and here again, this is strictly your opinion, that the equipment you didn’t examine, although it covers a large majority, that it would be that much different?


MB: Well, all we can do is speculate. We looked at three. Of the three we looked at, all of them were very deeply and pervasively flawed. Are the others any better? I suppose it’s possible that they are, but unfortunately, they haven’t been looked at with the same kind of scrutiny.


MAG: So, how do you feel as a Pennsylvanian and living in Philadelphia, where you have a Danaher machine which actually doesn’t even have a print-out, and you will be going, unless there is a change, up to that machine, entering your vote and not knowing where it went? How secure will you feel in 2008 if we have no change?


MB: Well, I hope that the procedures that are put in place in Philadelphia to prevent tampering are really sound.


MAG: But we still have that problem without any proof.


MB: That’s right.


MAG: Okay. Is there anything else that our audience should know, and is there anything Congress should be aware of?


MB: Well, I think one of the things we need to recognize is that these voting machines, the DREs, and the systems that count the votes, and the optical scan systems, these are all computers. They don’t look like personal computers, they don’t have the same keyboard and the same display, but on the inside, they’re computers that run software, and they’re running very complex software that performs a specialized task that only gets tested out a few times a year, and may not be stress-tested in a hostile environment very often in its life at all. Now, writing software that’s correct and that’s secure is a very, very difficult problem. It’s really the fundamental problem that computer science has been grappling with and has not succeeded in solving for its whole history. So, building a secure voting system out of software is already a very difficult problem, because designing software itself is a hard problem. So scrutiny and skepticism are really the only safeguards we have here.


MAG: And what about for Congress? Do you think it is time they re-look at this?


MB: It’s a shame, and again, I’m speaking only for myself here.


MAG: Understood.


MB: It’s a shame that after the 2000 election, with the butterfly ballot and so on, there was a real national consensus that it was important to make voting more reliable. I think everyone agreed with this very important goal that we should modernize elections and make them as reliable as possible. Unfortunately, we really rushed into buying equipment everywhere in the country that really wasn’t ready, and I think the only way we are going to solve this problem is by recognizing that we’ve got to do a careful design. We’re going to be left with whatever equipment we buy, whatever systems are put in place, we’re going to have them for a while, and this is something our democracy vitally depends on, so this is worth doing right.


MAG: Well, I would invite all our listeners, in addition, to play a game. I found that your Vendor Excuse Bingo is absolutely ingenious and fantastic. Where could they find it?


MB: There’s a link to it on my blog. I should say, I don’t want to make light of this, because this is very, very serious; but an unfortunate property of vendors of software, whether it’s voting machines or web servers, who have had their software exposed to scrutiny and discovered that it’s not as secure as it should be is to deny and threaten and so on. So I’ve put together a little bingo game with some of the common vendor responses to these kinds of things that I think we’re likely to hear in the voting machine case, but we often hear in computing in general.


MAG: And that website is?


MB: The website is


MAG: Well, I want to thank you.


MB: And I should also say, if I can just interrupt very quickly. Go to the source: the Secretary of State’s website in California has all of our reports. We tried to make them as readable as possible.


MAG: And you did an excellent job and I think you did a tremendous service for this country and thank you very much.


MB: Thank you.


Authors Bio: Mary Ann Gould is a founding member of the Pennsylvania-based Coalition for Voting Integrity.