Where’s the Risk?Voting machines that rely on direct input, using a touch screen, keyboard, etc. do not have a paper trail and are based on traditional embedded operating systems like Windows and Linux. They can be compromised using common hacking tools and the only way to identify if they have been breached is to use modern threat detection tools found in commercial environments. Considering many of these systems are well over 10 years old, and contain end of life technology, detection of a modern threat may elude many of these tools simply based on vendor maintenance. While large hacking of these systems is unlikely, compromising just enough of them undetected in battle ground states could lead to a similar scenario as the 2000 election. Let’s take a look at two ways to address potential problems – replacing end-of-life systems and patching vulnerabilities. 1. Upgrade End of Life Backend Technology Physical electronics and computer software are designed to last from six to 15 years; consumer electronics like cellular phones last even shorter. When technology is acquired mid cycle, it loses support and maintenance quicker since half its life expectancy has already been realized. For example, voting systems purchase in 2006 that are based on Microsoft Windows XP technology have been end of life for a few years now and no longer receive ANY security updates. This makes them susceptible to many modern attack vectors if they connected to the internet or not properly segmented from other systems to limit exposure. 2. Patch Vulnerabilities All software has vulnerabilities. Their risk, however, determines the potential danger to tasks they perform. Detecting these vulnerabilities can be done with vulnerability assessment scanners, web application scanners, source code review scanners, and a variety of other tools. Like any other piece of software, they are not perfect and can only detect what they have been coded to find. It is up to the states to assess their voting systems on a regular basis and fix any identified vulnerabilities in a timely manner so they do not become a liability. Considering many of these systems are end of life, there is no good solution to fixing them. In addition, Zero Day vulnerabilities are software or configuration flaws that have not been detectable in the past, have no security patch available, and represent a risk until a remediation strategy is published. The tools security teams rely on cannot detect the flaw because they have no method to do so. This type of attack vector, although much rarer than exploiting a known vulnerability, is what movies are made out of and espionage theories live on. They present the “what if I could” and in the past have been proven to be possible. One saving grace for the entire system is that it is dissimilar by state. A national hack of the entire electronic voting system is highly unlikely because of all the different technology used. Detecting a single hack is reliant on each state and it would take massive changes to the results or voter database to make a significant impact in an election. However, performing regular vulnerability assessments, limiting privileged access to the systems, and replacing outmoded technology is a start to avoid the chaos of a failed election.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored four books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, Identity Attack Vectors, and Cloud Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.