A Princeton University computer science professor added new fuel Wednesday to claims that electronic voting machines used across much of the country are vulnerable to hacking that could alter vote totals or disable machines.
In a paper posted on the university's Web site, Edward Felten and two graduate students described how they had tested a Diebold AccuVote-TS machine they obtained, found ways to quickly upload malicious programs and even developed a computer virus able to spread such programs between machines.
The marketing director for the machine's maker — Diebold Inc.'s Diebold Election Systems of Allen, Texas — blasted the report, saying Felten ignored newer software and security measures that prevent such hacking.
"I'm concerned by the fact we weren't contacted to educate these people on where our current technology stands," Mark Radke said.
Radke also question why Felten hadn't submitted his paper for peer review, as is commonly done before publishing scientific research.
Felten said he and his colleagues felt it necessary to publish the paper as quickly as possible because of the possible implications for the November midterm elections.
About 80 percent of American voters are expected to use some form of electronic voting in the upcoming election, in which the makeup of the U.S. House will be decided, as well as 33 Senate seats and 36 governorships.
The AccuVote-TS is commonly used across the country, along with a newer model, the AccuVote-TSx. While Felten wasn't able to test the new machine, he said he thought much of what he found would still apply.
The machine Felten tested, obtained in May from an undisclosed source, was the same type used across Maryland in its primary election Tuesday, according to Ross Goldstein, a deputy administrator with the state's Board of Elections. Goldstein said he couldn't comment on the report until he read it.
Diebold and other machine manufacturers, including California-based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software Inc., have been the subject of lawsuits, claiming the machines are vulnerable to hacking and breakdowns that can assign votes to the wrong candidate.
Election officials in some states have also complained.
Previous studies have claimed hacking vulnerabilities with the machines. But Felten claims his study is the first time that an independent research group has obtained an actual machine and tested it extensively.
Felten and graduate students Ariel Feldman and Alex Halderman found that malicious programs could be placed on the Diebold by accessing the memory card slot and power button, both behind a locked door on the side of the machine. One member of the group was able to pick the lock in 10 seconds, and software could be installed in less than a minute, according to the report.
The researchers say they designed software capable of modifying all records, audit logs and counters kept by the voting machine, ensuring that a careful forensic examination would find nothing wrong.
The programs were able to modify vote totals or cause machines to break down, something that could alter the course of an election if machines were located in crucial polling stations.
It was also possible to design a computer virus to spread malicious programs to multiple machines by piggybacking on a new software download or an election information file being transferred from machine to machine, Felten said.
"I think there are many people out there who have the type of technical ability to carry out the sort of attacks we describe here," he said.
Felten said hacking dangers could be mitigated with better software, more restrictions on access to machines and memory cards, and paper receipts verified by the voter.
Radke said Diebold already has implemented many of those things.