Easy Peasy

Rice Students Challenge Electronic Voting Machines
Converge (10/13/08)

As part of an advanced computer science class, Rice University professor Dan Wallach is challenging his students to rig a voting machine. Wallach split his class into teams.

During phase one, teams pretend to be unscrupulous programmers at a voting machine company by trying to make subtle changes to the machines’ software that will alter the election’s outcome without being detected by election officials. The second phase has teams playing the part of election software regulators by trying to certify the code submitted by another team during the first phase of the class.

“What we’ve found is that it’s very easy to insert subtle changes to the voting machine,” Wallach says. “If someone has access and wants to do damage, it’s very straightforward to do it.” He says the experiment shows how vulnerable certain electronic-voting systems are.

Wallach says the students often, but not always, are able to find the hacks, but that in real life it would probably be too late. “In the real world, voting machines’ software is much larger and more complex than the Hack-a-Vote machine we use in class,” Wallach says. “We have little reason to believe that the certification and testing process used on genuine voting machines would be able to catch the kind of malice that our students do in class.”

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