Researchers: Voting machines can be easily hacked

As it turns out, hacking an election isn't as hard as you'd think.

Voting machines

A poll worker helps a man at a voting machine.

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Image.
  • A group of hackers has demonstrated that many common voting machines are easily compromised.
  • The group presented their findings to Congress, where election security is increasingly a serious concern.
  • The question of how secure voting machines are isn't new, but the current political climate gives it new meaning.

Election security is on the minds of millions of Americans. Fears of election tinkering are widespread, and even Congress is concerned enough to try to do something about it. The problem got a lot scarier this week, as hackers descended on Capitol Hill to explain how easy it was for them to hack into several kinds of voting machines.

Do voting machines vote for electric sheep?

A group of ethical hackers has demonstrated that several common voting machines can easily be hacked.

In a demonstration at the DEF CON cybersecurity conference, the hackers were able to compromise every voting machine they tested. Dr. Matt Blaze, a co-founder of the election testing project and a professor at Georgetown, warned that the findings of the tests could be easily replicated by those with access to the machines, including voters and poll workers.

In some cases, the hackers predicted that they could have done their damage without being near the machine at all, opening the door to more remote hacking possibilities if the machines are set up incorrectly.

The flaws that the hackers found were varied, ranging from wimpy default passwords to weak encryption.

This all becomes even more terrifying when you realize that the hackers bought their machines for this test on eBay. Anybody who can win an auction can get one of these commonly used voting machines to tinker with. Professor Blaze hastened to remind the Washington Post that "The resources of … eBay are well within that of our foreign adversaries."

The hackers, concerned by their findings, spoke to members of Congress about their findings to underscore the need for increased election security. The found a few very concerned Representatives. Finding more funding then that which has already been dedicated to the issue may be more difficult.

Why is this important?

Concerns about electronic voting machines being hacked or unreliable aren't new, the 2006 film Man of the Year features this as a plot point, and videos all over YouTube show news reports on this same problem going back for years, but take on a new meaning in a time when we know that Russians tried to access voter databases in Florida.

The American political system makes the issue even more serious. To win the presidential election, a candidate doesn't need a majority of the votes overall, but merely a majority of the electoral college votes — which can be captured by winning a few key states. A compromised voting machine in a couple of these states could sway a close election.

The primary finding of these hackers that voting machines can be compromised is nothing new. The only change is how seriously we are taking the problem. Combining this with the increased risk of foreign election interference we face today, the United States is now in a situation where the most critical elections in the world can be easily hacked.

Maybe we should all go back to paper ballots. Those have always worked, right?

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