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Rice Students Learn How Vulnerable Electronic Voting Really Is

With the presidential election is just weeks away, Rice University computer science students are given the chance to rig a voting machine in the classroom. The result may surprise you. Pat Hernandez has the story.


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Undergraduate and graduate students in an advanced computer security course at Rice put today’s voting machines to the test.

“The project for my students simulates that the students work for an election vendor who’s building a voting machine, except they’re evil. And then, the challenge for the students is to see if they can design some kind of hack, or manipulation of a voting machine that can escape detection.”

Dan Wallach, an associate professor in the department of computer science at Rice, says any kind of software is vulnerable to attacks, so this educational project creates an opportunity for students to do that in a safe and controlled way.

“The idea behind this project is two fold. One, is to give students a controlled and safe way where they can be devious, and the second, is to effectively prove a point about voting systems, which is, if there were somebody malicious in the loop, there’s very little you could do to detect or prevent it.”

Wallach says students discovered the ease in which voting machines can be compromised.

“The student project, which I do every year in class, helps prove a point, which I try to explain when I’m testifying in front of governments and other bodies, which is that software is a fragile and malleable thing, and trying to rely on software for the security of an election is really unacceptable.”

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman says she is familiar with Professor Wallach’s experiment.

“It doesn’t surprise me when someone in a laboratory, with everybody watching, is able to perform something unscrupulous on any kind of equipment, but let’s remember that our voting equipment has a lot of safeguards and testing built into it, and a lot of security protecting it.”

Wallach says for the most part, redundancies built into voting machines react to failure, and not compromise.

“If the machine breaks, you might be able to recover the votes from it. That’s a different kind of redundancy from what you need in the context of preventing security attacks.”

But Kaufman says any voting system is only as good and safe as those that operate it.

“That is why I say that we pray that those of us will cherish the process in America, and do everything that we can to keep it efficient and secure and safe for the voters.”

In 2006, electronic voting machines accounted for 41-percent of the tallied U.S. votes

Pat Hernandez, KUHF…Houston Public Radio News.

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