people voting in California

Microsoft unwraps open-source election security tools

Pieces of the election infrastructure security puzzle may be dropping into place.

On May 6, Microsoft announced ElectionGuard, an open-source software development kit (SDK) it says will make voting more secure, accessible and efficient by enabling end-to-end verification of elections.

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Microsoft worked with Galois, a computer science company with deep roots in security research, to develop ElectionGuard.  In 2016 a Galois spinoff, Free & Fair, had developed its own open-source voting platform offering  a ballot scanning and tabulation system, a secure electronic poll book and an election administration solution that verified each step in the voting process from check-in to ballot casting.

ElectionGuard uses homomorphic encryption – which enables processing of encrypted data -- to verify elections two ways.  When individuals cast their vote, they get a code they can use to track an encrypted version of their ballot through the election process via a web portal. They can also verify their vote and the tracking code to ensure they match their voting selections. After the election, voters can confirm that their votes were properly counted.  

The second verification method features an open specification that even hobbyist programmers can use to write an election verification program to confirm tabulations are correct, Galois said on its blog. The ElectionGuard SDK also supports risk-limiting audits, allowing results to be verified without publishing all the vote records.

"The combination of the tracker -- which allows individual voters to verify that their votes have been accurately recorded -- and the verifier -- which allows anyone to verify that the recorded votes have been accurately counted -- enables full 'end-to-end verification' of the correctness of election results," Tom Burt, Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, wrote in a company blog. "It will not be possible to 'hack' the vote without detection."

ElectionGuard can secure voting on any election equipment. Galois said that its "documentation and API design methodologies will make it straightforward to convert existing systems to use ElectionGuard. The same approaches also serve to make ElectionGuard hard to misuse; the API design makes entire classes of misuse impossible."

Besides partnering with Microsoft on the ElectionGuard SDK, Galois is working on voting security with  the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA's System Security Integrated Through Hardware and firmware program aims to develop "hardware security architectures and associated design tools to protect systems against classes of hardware vulnerabilities exploited through software, not just vulnerability instances," DARPA explained on its website

DARPA brought on Galois to help it build a secure voting system as an SSITH demonstration project because it's unclassified, easily explainable, broadly useful and independently verifiable, according to a report in Motherboard.

Although ElectionGuard has been designed to run on a variety of hardware, operating systems and election equipment configurations, two of the three top U.S elections machine vendors -- Election Systems & Software and Hart InterCivic -- are partnering with Microsoft to evaluate the software and explore incorporating it into their voting systems, according to an AP report.

ElectionGuard will be available on GitHub beginning this summer, Microsoft said. It also expects early prototypes using the SDK to be ready to test during the 2020 elections.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, has developed its own open-source voting system. Ten years ago, elections officials made plans to move the nation's largest voting precinct in the country off punch card voting machines and onto a system that would provide transparency, accessibility, usability and security.

The county contracted with Smartmatic to help it develop the ballot marking devices, which were presented to officials in March. With the new system, voters select their candidates from a touch-screen menu. After the voters review their ballots, they feed a sheet of paper into the machine, which prints their selection and drops the paper into a secure container.  The solution was designed by Los Angeles County and will be publicly owned and operated by the county, according to the website of the Voting Solutions for All People, an  initiative that was established in 2009 to address the county's aging voting system and its large and complex electorate.

The open-source solution cost $100 million, but L.A. County officials believe their new machines will cut down on mechanical breakdowns and protect elections from hacking, NBC News reported.  The new machines are also expected to make voting easier for those with disabilities and limited English proficiency.  The county's system is undergoing testing and is slated to be ready for the March 2020 California presidential primary.

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 and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

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

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