How Secure Are Electronic Voting Machines?

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It’s not that the machines have slight security glitches. It’s more that they’re almost comically hacker-friendly. Take the touchscreen Diebold Accuvote system. In 2012, nearly one-quarter of Americans are expected to use them to cast ballots. But the machines have been under fire for security errors for nearly a decade.

Just how insecure are they? In 2006, a Princeton computer science professor and his students were testing the system’s security when they discovered a decidedly low-tech way to crack the Accuvote. Each machine logs its votes on a memory card housed behind a locked panel, but the lock is the same type used on hotel minibars and jukeboxes. The universal key that opens it is widely available. Whoops!

In September 2011, even more terrifying news emerged from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. A team of computer scientists on the lab’s Vulnerability Assessment team built a little gizmo that could latch onto an Accuvote’s circuitry and automatically change voters’ ballots. The kicker? The parts needed to build the “alien electronics” for hacking the machine cost only $10.50. For another $15, hackers can incorporate a remote control that lets them overwrite ballots from up to half a mile away. That means that while candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns, it takes just $26 and the equivalent of an eighth-grade science education to put the screws to democracy.

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine—"The Most Important Questions of 2012."