A Security Analysis of the Secure Electronic
Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE)

January 20, 2004
Authors
Dr. David Jefferson
Dr. Aviel D. Rubin
Dr. Barbara Simons
Dr. David Wagner

To contact the authors send mail to: info@servesecurityreport.org
To view the authors' bios: click here

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Press Release: Click to download PDF

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Executive summary

This report is a review and critique of computer and communication security issues in the SERVE voting system (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment), an Internet-based voting system being built for the U.S. Department of Defense's FVAP (Federal Voting Assistance Program). The program's web site is http://www.serveusa.gov/. While the system is called an experiment, it is going to be used to count real votes in the upcoming general elections. The authors are members of SPRG (the Security Peer Review Group), a panel of experts in computerized election security that was assembled by FVAP to help evaluate SERVE. Our task was to identify potential vulnerabilities the system might have to various kinds of cyber-attack, to evaluate the degrees of risk they represent to the integrity of an election, and to make recommendations about how to mitigate or eliminate those risks.

The SERVE system is planned for deployment in the 2004 primary and general elections, and will allow the eligible voters first to register to vote in their home districts, and then to vote, entirely electronically via the Internet, from anywhere in the world. Besides being restricted to overseas voters and military personnel, SERVE is currently limited to people who vote in one of 50 counties in the seven states (Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington) that are participating. The program is expected to handle up to 100,000 votes over the course of the year, including both the primaries and the general election. (By comparison, approximately 100 million votes were cast in the 2000 general election.) The eventual goal of SERVE is to support the entire population of eligible overseas citizens plus military and dependents. This population is estimated to number about 6 million, so the 2004 SERVE deployment must be judged as a prototype for a very large possible future system.

Our conclusions are summarized as follows:

  1. DRE (direct recording electronic) voting systems have been widely criticized elsewhere for various deficiencies and security vulnerabilities: that their software is totally closed and proprietary; that the software undergoes insufficient scrutiny during qualification and certification; that they are especially vulnerable to various forms of insider (programmer) attacks; and that DREs have no voter-verified audit trails (paper or otherwise) that could largely circumvent these problems and improve voter confidence. All of these criticisms, which we endorse, apply directly to SERVE as well.

  2. But in addition, because SERVE is an Internet- and PC-based system, it has numerous other fundamental security problems that leave it vulnerable to a variety of well-known cyber attacks (insider attacks, denial of service attacks, spoofing, automated vote buying, viral attacks on voter PCs, etc.), any one of which could be catastrophic.

  3. Such attacks could occur on a large scale, and could be launched by anyone from a disaffected lone individual to a well-financed enemy agency outside the reach of U.S. law. These attacks could result in large-scale, selective voter disenfranchisement, and/or privacy violation, and/or vote buying and selling, and/or vote switching even to the extent of reversing the outcome of many elections at once, including the presidential election. With care in the design, some of the attacks could succeed and yet go completely undetected. Even if detected and neutralized, such attacks could have a devastating effect on public confidence in elections.

  4. It is impossible to estimate the probability of a successful cyber-attack (or multiple successful attacks) on any one election. But we show that the attacks we are most concerned about are quite easy to perpetrate. In some cases there are kits readily available on the Internet that could be modified or used directly for attacking an election. And we must consider the obvious fact that a U.S. general election offers one of the most tempting targets for cyber-attack in the history of the Internet, whether the attacker's motive is overtly political or simply self-aggrandizement.

  5. The vulnerabilities we describe cannot be fixed by design changes or bug fixes to SERVE. These vulnerabilities are fundamental in the architecture of the Internet and of the PC hardware and software that is ubiquitous today. They cannot all be eliminated for the foreseeable future without some unforeseen radical breakthrough. It is quite possible that they will not be eliminated without a wholesale redesign and replacement of much of the hardware and software security systems that are part of, or connected to, today's Internet.

  6. We have examined numerous variations on SERVE in an attempt to recommend an alternative Internet-based voting system that might deliver somewhat less voter convenience in exchange for fewer or milder security vulnerabilities. However, all such variations suffer from the same kinds of fundamental vulnerabilities that SERVE does; regrettably, we cannot recommend any of them. We do suggest a kiosk architecture as a starting point for designing an alternative voting system with similar aims to SERVE, but which does not rely on the Internet or on unsecured PC software (Appendix C).

  7. The SERVE system might appear to work flawlessly in 2004, with no successful attacks detected. It is as unfortunate as it is inevitable that a seemingly successful voting experiment in a U.S. presidential election involving seven states would be viewed by most people as strong evidence that SERVE is a reliable, robust, and secure voting system. Such an outcome would encourage expansion of the program by FVAP in future elections, or the marketing of the same voting system by vendors to jurisdictions all over the United States, and other countries as well. However, the fact that no successful attack is detected does not mean that none occurred. Many attacks, especially if cleverly hidden, would be extremely difficult to detect, even in cases when they change the outcome of a major election. Furthermore, the lack of a successful attack in 2004 does not mean that successful attacks would be less likely to happen in the future; quite the contrary, future attacks would be more likely, both because there is more time to prepare the attack, and because expanded use of SERVE or similar systems would make the prize more valuable. In other words, a "successful" trial of SERVE in 2004 is the top of a slippery slope toward even more vulnerable systems in the future. (The existence of SERVE has already been cited as justification for Internet voting in the Michigan Democratic caucuses.)

  8. Like the proponents of SERVE, we believe that there should be better support for voting for our military overseas. Still, we regret that we are forced to conclude that the best course is not to field the SERVE system at all. Because the danger of successful, large-scale attacks is so great, we reluctantly recommend shutting down the development of SERVE immediately and not attempting anything like it in the future until both the Internet and the world's home computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned, or some other unforeseen security breakthroughs appear. We want to make clear that in recommending that SERVE be shut down, we mean no criticism of the FVAP, or of Accenture, or any of its personnel or subcontractors. They have been completely aware all along of the security problems we describe here, and we have been impressed with the engineering sophistication and skill they have devoted to attempts to ameliorate or eliminate them. We do not believe that a differently constituted project could do any better job than the current team. The real barrier to success is not a lack of vision, skill, resources, or dedication; it is the fact that, given the current Internet and PC security technology, and the goal of a secure, all-electronic remote voting system, the FVAP has taken on an essentially impossible task. There really is no good way to build such a voting system without a radical change in overall architecture of the Internet and the PC, or some unforeseen security breakthrough. The SERVE project is thus too far ahead of its time, and should wait until there is a much improved security infrastructure to build upon.