Alumni Whoíve Made a Difference - Avi Rubin

Rubin Votes NO on E-voting Machines

Avi Rubin (BS '89; MSE '91, PhD '94, Computer Science)
Professor, Johns Hopkins University, Information Security Institute

But will his vote be accurately counted, and can it be verified? These are the issues that have led Avi, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and technical director of the Information Security Institute, to give much of his time this past year to researching and publicizing his work on electronic voting machines.

It seems to take most of his time. Avi gets a minimum of 4-5 press calls daily, and often many more than that. In one recent 4-week period, he was on national TV each week, and on CSpan twice with congressional hearings. He also gets frequent newspaper and radio attention. With an estimated 30% of all votes being tallied with these machines in the next election, this attention is well-placed.

The media blitz began July 2003, when Avi began to express his reservations about the security of the electronic voting system in a paper he published with three colleagues, called, ďAnalysis of an Electronic Voting SystemĒ (subsequently published in IEEE Symp. On Security and Privacy, May 2004). The paper states that ďthis voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software development processes. We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software.Ē The weakness of the system didnít end there. ďThe insider threat is also quite considerable, showing that not only can an insider, such as a poll worker, modify the votes, but that insiders can also violate voter privacy and match votes with the voters who cast them.Ē

Avi feels that the only reasonable option is to have a verifiable audit trail, so that in the case of any questions, the individual votes can be retrieved and tallied by hand. Some states, such as Missouri, require this safeguard, but many do not. And with the election coming up so quickly, there is little likelihood of major changes or improvements in the systems by the time voters will cast their votes for the next President of the United States. Unfortunately, the most widespread electronic voting machines are also those with the most basic flaws.

ďThe process of counting votes should be independent from the process of voters making their choices, and they should be done on different machines,Ē said Rubin. With the simple alteration of having the voting machine print out a voterís ballot when the choices have been made, to be counted either optically or by hand, Rubin would feel comfortable having these new e-voting machines in place.

The public likes these machines. Avi explains, ďas a voter, itís a more pleasant experience than using the paper ballots. Also, I think people who donít know much about computers have an inherent trust in a machine, thinking that because itís a computer itís not going to make a mistake. Thatís the opposite intuition to those people who work a lot with computers.Ē

Avi spoke before the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, and more recently has spoken to the House Committee on Government Reform. He is able to point to three additional major studies by computer security experts who support his findings, and demonstrate additional problems, yet he still finds himself being attacked by companies and individuals who donít want to hear of the problems. The public is interested, however. When Avi wrote an article about his experience as an election judge (poll worker), using an e-voting machine, he received more than 40,000 hits on the web page that included the article.

We can be sure that the machines in use will be safer, and more tamper-proof than they would have been without Aviís steady and impassioned efforts to reveal their weaknesses.

One might expect that on the heels of e-voting would come voting over the internet. Itís an attractive thought for busy professionals and homemakers - but that seems to be a ways off. Rubin was asked by the Pentagon to be part of a team to evaluate a $22M project that would have enabled voting over the internet. On the basis of the teamís recommendation, the project was shut down.

Avi received all of his undergraduate and graduate degrees at UM, and even left Ann Arbor with his new wife, Ann Wolok Rubin, who received her undergraduate degree from UM in Communications before getting her law degree. Rubin is true blue. When he graduated and went into industry, he positioned himself to be the PhD recruiter for UM at AT&T Labs. This allowed him to come back to UM from time to time and go to football games. ďI have three children and they all wear Michigan stuff at the games. I like to dress up my young twins in identical UM garb and go to the ESPN zone Ė and run into all the other Michigan fans.Ē

[EECS News Fall/Winter 2004]