Navigating Everest: Rocket Science?

Rocket Science. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand the essentials of systems integrity. But, wait a minute! It does take rocket science to properly make high integrity systems.

Ohio, a state that is rapidly gaining more notoriety than Florida over the issue of elections, is once again in the news. The state’s history is problematic from both the standpoints of machinery concerns of possible tampering, and processes – a disparity in access, long lines, and the like. I note these links point to a Wikipedia page that is not without controversy, and I have no interest in diving into that, but leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

I want to focus on the latest topic of that debate: a 334-page voting systems report released on Friday 07.Dec, by the Ohio Secretary of State. The report was prepared by the “Evaluation and Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards and Testing” (EVEREST),with support and resources from Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and WebWise Security.

In short, the sum and substance of the tome describe a system so compromised that it’s difficult to imagine how any vote tally could be considered anything other than a “good guess.”

Steven Teppler, a professional colleague of mine on the American Bar Association’s Science & Technology Law Division –Information Security Committee, and a prolific commentator within the ABA on matters of voting technology law, was on this story early on. In an ABA forum post he noted that a UK corporate IT publication, “The Register” ran a news story about this which quoted an executive from Premier Election Systems as cautioning people not to read too much into the report. Excerpting from the Register story:

It is important to note that there has not been a single documented case of a successful attack against an electronic voting system, in Ohio or anywhere in the United States,” an executive for Premier said in response to the report. “Even as we continue to strengthen the security features of our voting systems, that reality should not be lost in the discussion.”

Strictly speaking Premier may be right, although we find this assertion unconvincing (the old adage applies: we don’t know what we don’t know), especially when you consider that the quote expects us to ignore the specific results of source code analysis, penetration testing, as well as processes on the part of the administrator/lessees of the equipment. Consider:


  1. Failure to protect election data and software
  2. Failure to effectively control access to election operations
  3. Failure to correctly implement security mechanisms
  4. Failure to follow standard software and security engineering practices


  1. Failure to effectively protect vote integrity and privacy
  2. Failure to protect elections from malicious insiders
  3. Failure to validate and protect software
  4. Failure to follow standard software and security engineering practices
  5. Failure to provide trustworthy auditing

Hart Intercivic

  1. Failure to effectively protect election data integrity
  2. Failure to eliminate or document unsafe functionality
  3. Failure to protect election from “Malicious Insiders”
  4. Failure to provide trustworthy auditing

The Administrator/Lessee

  1. Failure to protect against insiders
  2. Failure to follow “standard and well known practices” for crypto, key management and security hardware
  3. Failure to provide a trustworthy auditing capability, making it “difficult” to discover when an attack occurs
  4. Deeply flawed software maintenance practices

Good grief friends, this isn’t rocket science. Oh, wait a minute, it is rocket science! That’s just the point: if real high assurance engineering methodologies… (you know: the methods used by the aerospace industry and the military to name a couple) …if those methods had been employed, systems like this would never have been produced in the first place.

As Teppler aptly summed it up: the executive at Premier is essentially saying, “We can build a house with twelve doors and eleven locks, and we can have it certified as safe because there has been no documented case of a successful intrusion.”

I read the Ohio report as a specification of what not to do as we begin to think about platform architecture at the OSET Institute.


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