people voting in California

DEFCON to target voting machines

Although Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election did not appear to target voting machines themselves, things might be different next time around.  This summer’s DEFCON conference will highlight possible risks when hackers try their hands at manipulating voting machines. The hacker conference plans to offer a “village” of American machines for hackers to try to crack.

According to a report in Politico, DEFCON organizers are looking for used voting machines so attendees can try to manipulate them through hardware and software or remote access.

At the 2015 conference, hackers shut down a Jeep’s brakes and transmission from miles away, so manipulating voting machines may not present much of a challenge.

Jake Braun, a White House liaison to the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, told Politico he hopes the event will surface the vulnerabilities of the machines. "Anybody who says they’re un-hackable just doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Braun said.

The machines themselves are only one part of an aging, distributed, underfunded system that features Windows XP systems, backups on obsolete Zip drives and little IT support.

Newer, more secure voting systems have been proposed. Los Angeles is piloting a ballot-marking device that uses a stylus and touch screen. Voters record their vote, which is then printed onto a piece of paper and placed in a ballot box, but not recorded or stored by the system itself. The votes in the ballot box would then be electronically scanned.  San Francisco is working on an open source voting project that would ensure security through transparent and auditable software.

The security of the election system has earned it consideration as a critical infrastructure, subject to the same protections from the Department of Homeland Security as the communications, financial or energy infrastructure.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA from West Chester University and an MA in English from the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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