"I Saw It Hacked"
By SUSAN PYNCHON
I was one of ten people present at the
"hack" of the Leon County, Florida voting system, which
took place on Tuesday, December 13, 2005 around 4:30 in the afternoon
at the county elections warehouse. Leon County's voting system
is the Diebold Accu-Vote OS 1.94w (optical scan).
The Leon County Supervisor
of Elections, Ion Sancho, authorized a "test" of his
Diebold voting system to see if election results could be altered
using only a memory card. Harri Hursti, a computer programmer
from Finland facilitated the test and it has come to be known
as the "Harri Hursti Hack."
What follows is my description
of that hack and its significance for our nation, which I hope
will correct much of the misinformation circulating regarding
To select which voting machine
to use for the test, Ion drew a serial number of one voting machine
from a container holding all the serial numbers of all the Leon
Since the test took place at
the elections warehouse, all the voting machines were already
stored there and the one machine, whose serial number was selected,
was located and brought into the warehouse office, where it was
plugged into an electrical outlet (so it could operate!). It
was not networked to any other machines. We checked the serial
number of the machine against the serial number that Ion had
Earlier, Ion had given ONE
Diebold memory card to Hursti. Bev Harris and Kathleen Wynne
of Black Box Voting were also present at the test.
Harri had programmed the memory
card that morning, in his hotel room, using an off-the-shelf
crop scanner. I drove Harri in my car from the hotel to the warehouse.
When we arrived, Harri was asked to stay outside the warehouse
office where the central tabulator is located, so that there
would be no question about whether he had had any access to the
central tabulator. When the randomly-selected voting machine
was brought into the warehouse office, all of us went into the
warehouse office except Harri, whom we could see sitting in a
chair on the other side of a plate glass window separating the
office from the rest of the warehouse.
Ion ran a complete mock election.
He had had actual paper ballots pre-printed with the following
"Can the votes on this
Diebold system be hacked using the memory card?"
There were two possible answers:
"Yes" or "No," with an oval to the left of
each answer to be filled in by the voter.
Everything was conducted as
in a normal election. Ion first printed a "zero tape"
(a poll tape from the machine that is supposed to show that nothing
has been altered before the election begins). This was the first
step in the hack --the zero tape showed zero votes for both the
"Yes" answer and the "No" answer, even though
Harri had altered the memory card and votes had been subtracted
from one answer and added to the other answer. Harri used the
interpreted (executable) code to cover up the fact that he had
changed the vote counters.
Then eight of us voted, filling
in the oval on our paper ballot. Six of us voted "No,"
the election could not be hacked. Two of us voted "Yes,"
it could be hacked. Then, one by one, we inserted our ballots
into the voting machine. Ion checked after each voter to make
sure that the counter on the machine was counting properly as
each ballot was inserted. So, we ended up with an accurate count
of 8 ballots cast on the screen on the front of the voting machine.
Then Ion placed an "ender card" in the machine to end
the election and printed the poll tape.
Instead of two "Yes"
votes, the poll tape showed seven "Yes" votes.
Instead of six "No"
votes, the poll tape showed one "No" vote.
Harri did not just flip the
votes, as he wanted to show how easy it was to change the totals
At that point, Ion Sancho's
technician, TJ, said, "Well, that doesn't prove anything
because the printer template can be changed." (And that
is true. The poll tape can be made to read anything at all, which
was proved in an earlier test on a Leon County op-scan in May
of 2005, when the poll-tape was made to say, at the bottom of
the tape, "Is this real or is it Memorex?")
Ion responded to TJ that they
were taking this to the next level and that he wanted TJ to upload
the memory card to the central tabulator. TJ, who had quite apparently
been talking to the Diebold reps, said he didn't want that to
happen because he didn't know if Harri might have planted some
kind of virus on the memory card that would infect the central
tabulator. Ion then explained to TJ that, just an hour earlier,
he had obtained permission from the Leon County Council to replace
the Diebold system. That meant that the Leon County Diebold system
would never be used in any election again, and thus Ion said
it was all right to upload the memory card to the central tabulator.
(The irony here, of course, is that Diebold would worry about
a virus being planted on this particular memory card! What about
all the thousands of people around the country who have access
to memory cards...doesn't Diebold worry about one of them planting
a virus? And the second irony is that ITA testing is supposed
to catch these security vulnerabilities and yet Diebold claimed
to be worried about a security exploitation by Harri Hursti AFTER
all ITA testing had been completed).
So, TJ became convinced that
it was all right to upload the memory card, which he did. And
there, on the central tabulator screen, appeared the altered
results: Seven "Yes" votes and one "No" vote,
with absolutely no evidence that anything had been altered. It
was a powerful moment and, I will admit, it had the unexpected
result for me personally of causing me to break down and cry.
Why did I cry? It was the last thing I thought I would do, but
it happened for so many reasons. I cried because it was so clear
that Diebold had been lying. I cried because there was proof,
before my very eyes, that these machines were every bit as bad
as we all had feared. I cried because we have been so unjustly
attacked as "conspiracy theorists" and "technophobes"
when Diebold knew full well that its voting system could alter
election results. More than that, that Diebold planned to have
a voting system that could alter results. And I cried because
it suddenly hit me, like a Mack truck, that this was proof positive
that our democracy is and has been, as we have all feared, truly
at the mercy of unscrupulous vendors who are producing electronic
voting machines that can change election results without detection.
Beyond this, however, what
is the real significance of the "Harri Hursti hack?"
There are several answers to that question.
First of all, the Hursti hack
reveals only one vulnerability in an almost unlimited number
of potential flaws or vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems
(both op-scans and DREs). However, the Hursti hack is individually
significant because the flaw it exposed is a planned vulnerability
in the system, not something that is accidentally there. It
had to be PUT there (programmed) on purpose. For Diebold to
claim innocence about this would be absurd. It would be like
saying you didn't know your garage had a door while you were
standing there holding the garage door opener. Or, because this
security vulnerability is so huge, it would more accurately be
like saying you didn't know your house had a garage at all!!
Since something like 95% of
computer scientists agree that electronic voting machines (op-scans
and DREs) have an almost infinite number of potential flaws or
vulnerabilities, the Hursti hack shows, above all, THE IMPORTANCE
OF HAVING PAPER BALLOTS for an independent confirmation of machine
results. The beauty of paper ballots is that they are completely
independent of any machine, unlike the printer paper trail.
Therefore, they provide a true independent, manual audit of machine
results. Paper ballots are also the only electronic voting method
that eliminates, almost completely, any question about voter
intent because the ballots are voter-generated, filled in by
the voter's own hand, thus eliminating the need for a voter to
confirm his/her choices on any printer-issued receipt. Paper
ballots are the only way to have a fail-safe election with any
electronic voting machine. You must have paper ballots and you
must manually audit (count) a portion or all of those ballots
in every election.
The ONLY evidence in the Hursti
hack that could discredit his alteration of results were the
paper ballots themselves.But these ballots can only be useful
if they are actually counted after an election to check against
the machine count. The Hursti hack shows clearly that there must
be an independent paper trail that can be manually audited to
confirm (or discredit) machine results. The hack exposes a serious
electronic voting flaw, but then, ironically, re-instates optical
scan as the only electronic voting method that provides truly
independent, manual audit capabilities.
Susan Pynchon is a member of Florida Coalition for Fair Elections, and can be reached through Vote Trust USA, where this piece originally appeared.
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