OPTICAL SCAN MACHINES HACKED IN FLORIDA
Black Box Voting Update: Latest Consumer Reports (June 1, 2005)
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This is one of the most important stories in two years. Please forward to your
Tallahassee , FL : "Are we having fun yet?"
This is the message that appeared in the window of a county optical scan
machine, startling Leon County Information Systems Officer Thomas James.
Visibly shaken, he immediately turned the machine off.
Diebold's opti-scan (paper ballot) voting system uses a curious memory
card design, offering penetration by a lone programmer such that
standard canvassing procedures cannot detect election manipulation.
The Diebold optical scan system was used in about 800 jurisdictions in
2004. Among them were several hotbeds of controversy: Volusia County
(FL); King County (WA); and the New Hampshire primary election, where
machine results differed markedly from hand-counted localities.
New regs: Counting paper ballots forbidden
Some states prohibit elections officials from checking on optical scan
tallies by examining the paper ballots. In Washington , according to
former supervisor of elections Julie Anne Kempf, Secretary of State Sam
Reed declared such spontaneous checkups to be "unauthorized recounts."
New Florida regulations will forbid counting paper ballots, even in
recounts, except in highly unusual circumstances. Without paper ballot
hand-counts, the hacks demonstrated below show that optical-scan
elections can be destroyed in seconds.
A little man living in every ballot box
The Diebold optical scan system uses a dangerous programming
methodology, with an executable program living inside the electronic
ballot box. This method is the equivalent of having a little man living
in the ballot box, holding an eraser and a pencil. With an executable
program in the memory card, no Diebold opti-scan ballot box can be
considered "empty" at the start of the election.
The Black Box Voting team proved that the Diebold optical scan program,
housed on a chip inside the voting machine, places a call to a program
living in the removable memory card during the election. The
demonstration also showed that the executable program on the memory card
(ballot box) can easily be changed, and that checks and balances,
required by FEC standards to catch unauthorized changes, were not
implemented by Diebold -- yet the system was certified anyway.
The Diebold system in Leon County, Florida succumbed to multiple
Ion Sancho: Truth and Excellence in Elections
Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho and Information Systems
Officer Thomas James had already implemented security procedures in Leon
County far exceeding the norm in elections management. This testing,
done by a team of researchers including Black Box Voting, independent
filmmakers, security expert Dr. Herbert Thompson, and special consultant
Harri Hursti, was authorized by Mr. Sancho, in an unusual act of
openness and courage, to identify any remaining holes in Leon County's
The results of the memory card hack demonstration will assist elections
supervisors throughout the U.S. , by emphasizing the critical importance
of accounting for each and every memory card and protecting access.
Computer expert Harri Hursti gained control over Leon County memory
cards, which handle the vote-reporting from the precincts. Dr. Herbert
Thompson, a security expert, took control of the Leon County central
tabulator by implanting a trojan horse-like script.
Two programmers can become a lone programmer, says Hursti, who has
figured out a way to control the entire central tabulator by way of a
single memory card swap, and also how to make tampered polling place
tapes match tampered central tabulator results. This more complex
approach is untested, but based on testing performed May 26, Hursti says
he has absolutely no reason to believe it wouldn't work.
Three memory card tests demonstrated successful manipulation of election
results, and showed that 1990 and 2002 FEC-required safeguards are being
violated in the Diebold version 1.94 opti-scan system.
Three memory card hacks
1. An altered memory card (electronic ballot box) was substituted for a
real one. The optical scan machine performed seamlessly, issuing a
report that looked like the real thing. No checksum captured the change
in the executable program Diebold designed into the memory card.
2. A second altered memory card was demonstrated, using a program that
was shorter than the original. It still worked, showing that there is
also no check for the number of bytes in the program.
3. A third altered memory card was demonstrated with the votes
themselves changed, showing that the data block (votes) can be altered
without triggering any error message.
How to "Roll over the odometer" in Diebold optical scan machines
Integer overflow checks do not seem to exist in this system, making it
possible to stuff the ballot box without triggering any error message.
This would be like pre-loading minus 100 votes for Tom and plus 100
votes for Rick (-100+100=ZERO) -- changing the candidate totals without
changing the overall number of votes.
A more precise comparison would be this: The odometer on a car rolls
over to zero after 999,999. In the Diebold system tested, the rollover
to zero happens at 65,536 votes. By pre-loading 65,511 votes for a
candidate, after 25 real votes appear (65,511 plus 25 = 65,536) the
report "rolls over" so that the candidate's total is ZERO.
This manipulation can be balanced out by preloading votes for candidate
"A" at 65,511 and candidate "B" at 25 votes -- producing an articifial
50-vote spread between the candidates, which will not be obvious after
the first 25 votes for candidate "A" roll over to zero. The "negative
25" votes from the odometer rollover counterbalance the "plus 25" votes
for the other candidates, making the total number of votes cast at the
end of the day exactly equal to the number of voters.
While testing the hack on the Leon County optical scan machine, Hursti
was stunned to find that pre-stuffing the ballot box to "roll over the
odometer" produced no error message whatsoever.*
*We did not have the opportunity to scan ballots after stuffing the
ballot box. Therefore, the rollover to zero was not tested in Leon
County . This integer overflow capability is discernable in the program
itself. We did have the opportunity to test a pre-stuffed ballot box,
which showed that pre-loaded ballot boxes do not trigger any error
Simple tweaks to pass L&A test and survive zero tape
Though the additional tweaks were not demonstrated at the Leon County
elections office, Hursti believes that the integer overflow hack can be
covered up on the "zero tape" produced at the beginning of the election.
The programming to cover up manipulations during the "logic & accuracy
test" is even simpler, since the program allows you to specify on which
reports (and, if you like, date and time of day) the manipulation will
The testing demonstrated, using the actual voting system used in a real
elections office, that Diebold programmers developed a system that
sacrifices security in favor of dangerously flexible programming,
violating FEC standards and calling the actions of ITA testing labs and
certifiers into question.
In the case of Leon County , inside access was used to achieve the hacks,
but there are numerous ways to introduce the hacks without inside
access. Outside access methods will be described in the technical report
to be released in mid-June.
Putting an executable program into removable memory card "ballot boxes"
-- and then programming the opti-scan chip to call and invoke whatever
program is in the live ballot box during the middle of an election -- is
a mind-boggling design from a security standpoint. Combining this
idiotic design with a program that doesn't even check to see whether
someone has tampered with it constitutes negligence and should result in
a product recall.
Counties that purchased the Diebold 1.94 optical scan machines should
not pay for any upgraded program; instead, Diebold should be required to
recall the faulty program and correct the problem at its own expense.
None of the attacks left any telltale marks, rendering all audits and
logs useless, except for hand-counting all the paper ballots.
Is it real? Or is it Memorex?
For example, Election Supervisor Ion Sancho was unable to tell, at
first, whether the poll tape printed with manipulated results was the
real thing. Only the message at the end of the tape, which read "Is this
real? Or is it Memorex?" identified the tape as a tampered version of
In another test, Congresswoman Corrine Brown (FL-Dem) was shocked to see
the impact of a trojan implanted by Dr. Herbert Thompson. She asked if
the program could be manipulated in such a way as to flip every fifth
"No problem," Dr. Thompson replied.
"It IS a problem. It's a PROBLEM!" exclaimed Brown, whose district
includes the troubled Volusia County, along with Duval County -- both
currently using the Diebold opti-scan system.
This system is also used in Congressman John Conyers' home district, in
contentious King County , Washington , and in Lucas County, Ohio (where
six election officials resigned or were suspended after many
irregularities were found.)
Diebold optical scans were used in San Diego for its ill-fated mayoral
election in Nov. 2004.
- - - - - - - - - - -
Optical scan systems have paper ballots, but election officials are
crippled in their ability to hand count these ballots due to restrictive
state regulations and budget limitations.
The canvassing (audit) procedure used to certify results from optical
scan systems involves comparing the "poll tapes" (cash register-like
results receipts) with the printout from the central tabulator. These
tests demonstrate that both results can be manipulated easily and
Minimum requirements to perform this hack:
1. A single specimen memory card from any county using the Diebold 1.94
optical scan series. (These cards were seen scattered on tables in King
County , piled in baskets accessible to the public in Georgia , and
jumbled on desktops in Volusia county.)
2. A copy of the compiler for the AccuBasic program. (These compilers
have been fairly widely distributed by Diebold and its predecessor
company, and there are workarounds if no compiler is available.)
3. Modest working language of any one of the higher level computer
languages (Pascal, C, Cobol, Basic, Fortran...) along with
introductory-level knowledge of assembler or machine language. (Machine
language knowledge needed is less than an advanced refrigerator or TV
repairmen needs. The optical scan system is much simpler than modern
The existence of the executable program in the memory card was
discernable from a review of the Diebold memos. The test hacks took just
a few hours for Black Box Voting consultants to develop.
Nearly 800 jurisdictions conducted a presidential election on this
system. This system is so profoundly hackable that an advanced-level TV
repairman can manipulate votes on it.
Black Box Voting asked Dr. Thompson and Hursti to examine the central
tabulator and the optical scan system after becoming concerned that not
enough attention had been paid to optical scans, tabulators and remote
Thompson and Hursti each found the vulnerabilities for their respective
hacks in less than 24 hours.
"Open for Business"
When it comes to this optical-scan system, as Hursti says, "It's not
that they left the door open. There is no door. This system is 'open for
The question now is: How brisk has business been? Based on this new
evidence, it is time to sequester and examine the memory cards used with
Diebold optical scans in Nov. 2004.
The popularity of tamper-friendly machines that are "open for business"
in heavily Democratic areas may explain the lethargy with which
Democratic leaders have been approaching voting machine security
The enthusiasm with which Republicans have endorsed machines with no
paper ballots at all indicates that neither party really wants to have
intact auditing of elections.
The ease with which a system -- which clearly violates dozens of FEC
standards going back to 1990 -- was certified calls into question the
honesty, competence, and personal financial transactions of both testing
labs and NASED certifiers.
Revamp and update hand-counted paper ballot technology?
Perhaps it is time to revisit the idea of hand-counted paper ballots,
printed by machines for legibility, with color-coded choices for quick,
easy, accurate sorting and counting. We should also take another look at
bringing counting teams in when the polls close, to relieve tired poll
This report is the "non-techie" version of a longer report, to be made
available around mid-June, with more technical information.
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