Hacking India’s Voting Machines

This morning’s events (see previous post) came at a very weird time: 15 minutes before the planned coordinated launch of some interesting research I took part in. Not that I cared even the slightest bit his morning, but the timing actually could not have been much more awkward. I had worked through the night to and we had planned a well coordinated action to publish some interesting research simultaneously over three timezones (at 07:30 CET this morning). That plan thus ended with me in an ambulance, not knowing how much damage my son had incurred. But since everything below was already written, here is what I was supposed to post this morning…


It’s great how it really is beginning to dawn on people all over the globe that paperless voting systems have a transparency problem. This last February I was invited to India for 9 days. It was good to get some sunlight, but again I was too busy to see many sights. I first went to Delhi to speak at the launch of a new book that is critical on Electronic Voting Machines (people there all call them EVMs). After that I went to Chennai for another conference. Then I went to Hyderabad and did … absolutely nothing that I was publicly talking about until today.

We spent a number of days hacking and filming an EVM (in various states of undress) that had fallen into precisely the right hands. In what qualifies as some of the crazier days of my life Alex Halderman, Hari Prasad and yours truly were finding ways around armed roadblocks, relocating parts on circuit boards, debugging code with teams in different timezones, testing electronics, meeting with political figures surrounded by guys with machine guns and shooting parts of the video embedded below. All of this against the backdrop of the hurricane of plan-resistant chaos that is India.

Our research proved something which we really never doubted: with some preparation anyone with even momentary access to paperless voting machines can own the country. If it wasn’t fun to do it would be depressing that something that obvious needs proving over and over again. Maybe some day we’ll skip the film and just own the country instead. (Just kidding…) Some parts of India definitely looked worth owning, those rare moments I had time to look.

Anyway: never got to see the Taj Mahal. Then again: when I go to India next time, it will probably still be there. Which is much more than one can say of these EVMs. Have a look for yourself.

The more scientific writeup of all this (and much more) can be found at IndiaEVM.org. And VeTA, a new organization that unites India’s budding election transparency movement, has set up a new website at IndianEVM.com.

Please help spread this story if you can. You know how.

Hacking the Nedap – the aftermath

It’s been all over the net: we hacked our voting machine. The precise machine that 90% of The Netherlands votes on has been hacked. If you read our report and documentation, you’ll see we didn’t just scratch the surface, but we dug in deep and we feel we proved beyond any doubt that this machine is not fit to be used in any election that deserves to be called democratic. The Nedap ES3B system is a DRE-style electronic voting systems. DREs are the ones that don’t leave any tangible trace of a vote and whose software just needs to be blindly trusted. Usually, such as is the case here in The Netherlands, a voting population has to provide this trust without being granted any information about how they work.

On October 4th, we’ve been on a national news documentary program that brought the first results, showing how easy it is to rig a vote once you have access to the machines. This was brought together with a news report detailing how easy it was to get surreptitious access to 400 of these machines, the ones that serve the entire city of Rotterdam. Then the next morning we hosted a press conference at which the entire national and international press-corps sat open-mouthed as we told the story of the deficiencies at various levels of the election process here in the Netherlands.

The aftermath is truly strange. On the good side there’s the reaction in Ireland, where large-scale media-coverage of our findings seems to have killed any last remaining hope for a slightly modified version of this silly machine to ever be used in any Irish elections. And in Germany people seem to be using our research productively to make sure Nedap and others do not expeand their black-box voting business over there. Over here in The Netherlands however, politicians and journalists seem to be ignoring any of the real scandals, focussing instead on the terrible fact that hackers were able to get such easy access to a voting machine.
Someting of this nature was to be expected with the elections this close. When we started this campaign, everybody expected elections to happen in March 2006 (provincial parliament) and May 2007 (national parliament). Then our government fell, and now national parliamentary elections happen on the 22nd of November 2006. Given such time pressure, it is simply much more comfortable for all involved to continue believing that the e-Voting emperor is wonderfully dressed. The simple and provable fact that our electronic voting procedures and technology are both deeply and irrepairably flawed is just a little too painful. Even – or make that especially – political parties whose voters would care about these issues have to walk a thin line to make sure they do not disenfranchise the very voters they depend on this November.
Nedap and the Dutch interior ministry have essentially reacted to the Nedap ES3B machine being proven ridiculously insecure by saying they are happy we care so much about the election process (which we suspect is a lie), by claiming that the machines we used are not the current ones (which we know is a lie) and by making unspecified promises of placing seals on them and guarding them a little better (which we can prove is insufficient and doesn’t address any of the real problems). Issues of placing our democracy in the hands of a few companies that do not want to tell us what they are doing remain unaddressed. If we leave it up to the people we elected to safeguard our democracy, these issues will be silently buried over the course of the coming week.

This is not something we plan to let happen though: we’re not done yet. We’re fully prepared to take the Dutch state to court and we will campaign to bring many people to vote in the last villages where this November’s elections are done on good old paper. It will be a bit of a hassle to get the paperwork needed to vote outside of our own municipalities. But hey, throughout history people have made much larger sacrifices to be able to vote in an honest election.

If you want to stay up-to-date on our voting stuff, check out the english pages of our campaign, which include a box to fill out your e-mail address to be added to our (low-traffic) announcement list.

Elections in the USA

Talking to people over here in New York about electronic voting I couldn’t help but notice how partisan the issue has become. I sense that most people that voted republican and that know about these issues want to close their eyes because they, at least somewhere deep inside, accept the possibility that their party came to power because of widespread fraud. This is such a fucked up situation.

Let’s hope we can beat black-box voting in Europe before we have such a culture of widespread distrust eating away at the very roots of the democratic process, because I’m not sure there is a way back from where the Americans have ended up now.

FOIA works…

Wob documents

Or so it seems. Pictured above is the stack of papers we got from the city of Amsterdam in response to our freedom of information request. The law is callled “Wob” here, and I can only recommend its use: wobbing is fun once you get the hang of it. This page shows you what we did and what other requests we still have in the governmental oven.

Black box voting is bad (and I’m back!)

Well, now is as good a moment as any to tell you all what I’ve been working on for the past month. I’ve taken a trip deep into the stinking bowels of a bad idea which in English is commonly called “Black Box voting” by those that oppose it. Black box voting is a form of “e-Voting” or electronic voting, which in itself is defined as people voting on computers in the polling stations, as opposed to “i-Voting”, which is defined as people voting at home behind their PC. Black box voting is electronic voting where there is no independent means to verify the outcome of an election. If citizens want to believe the outcome of a black box election, they would need to place infinite trust in the hardware and software inside the voting computers and in the infrastructure behind it.

Black box voting is a Bad Idea. Elections are after all the holy process of democracy, and not something that should be tampered with lightly. For democracy to have any meaning, election results need to be widely trusted. And for that they need to be verifiable by a large proportion of the population. Now this verifiability can take two forms: either it happens implicitly because of the large number of people involved in a manual vote count. The large number means that a very large number of people would need to be corrupted (by a party or parties with the same interest) for significant changes to the result to be accomplished. But there is also explicit verifiability: in situations where government cannot be trusted to organize honest elections, a large number of ordinary citizens can go to the polling stations and personally witness the votes being cast and counted. Most countries have provisions built into their election legislation that allow people to watch the process. I live in a country where such provisions exist, but actual citizen-witnessing of the elections is not currently deemed necessary by many. But the people of Ukraine and Azerbaijan have recently needed to go to the polling stations, in some cases forcing corrupt officials to snatch the ballot boxes away at gunpoint.

The United States are currently experiencing quite a few problems with election results being manipulated. Even though unverifiable voting on computers is only a part of the problem there, a controversial company called Diebold seems to working hard to stay controversial.

In The Netherlands, where I live, most voting computers are built by a dutch company called Nedap. These computers are also being exported to other countries, and some areas in Germany and France are using them too. But there is no country which does as much of its voting on computers as the Netherlands. At the time of writing this, only 13 relatively small communities still vote on paper, the rest of the Netherlands votes on computers. The case of The Netherlands is being used internationally as an example of how e-Voting is benign and completely reliable and non-controversial.

However in Ireland people have demanded that the government have thorough independent inspections of the voting computers done before switching from paper ballots to computers. The result has been a number of reports finding that these dutch Nedap computers were not secure enough. The Irish, although having spent 50 million Euros on the computers, decided to stay with paper for the time being. (These Irish reports are by the way almost the only source of information I have as to how the elections in my own country work, which in itself is a source of shame.) The experiences of the Irish resistance against black box voting show that one can actually win battles like this, and that you can get people to care about whether or not they can verify election results.

I’ve decided to dedicate some of my time to fighting black box voting and help set up a campaign to educate people as to what is going on. Part of the reason for doing this is a sense of guilt. People all over Europe are fighting the computers that come from my country. With my background I was in a perfect position to have been active much sooner, before e-Voting swept the country the way it did. I knew about the problem years ago and should have done more in the nineties.

I will be blogging about elections and voting much more often in the next weeks and months, thereby revitalizing this suffering blog in the process. For now, all that can read dutch should check out http://www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl . We’ve got a lot of information there. The campaign is growing, but it can use a lot of help still. For those of you who do not speak dutch: more english language information will be available soon. For now you may want to look at http://blackboxvoting.org just to get an idea of what’s out there.

Controleerbare uitslagen nu! - www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl