Elections Easy to Steal, Say Computer Scientists

ByABC News
September 15, 2006, 4:26 PM

Sept. 15, 2006 — -- When you walk into a voting booth and close the curtain behind you, you know which candidates you like, and you expect the people you choose will get your vote. Right?

Not necessarily, says Edward W. Felten, a professor of computer sciences at Princeton University who has made a career in recent years of poking holes through computer security.

In 2001, Felten raised hackles in the music industry by showing how hard it was to keep a recording from being copied. He's written software to show how easily private computer networks can be breached.

And now he's violated the sanctuary of the voting booth by hacking into the electronic voting machines that were designed to prevent election fraud.

Felten and two Princeton graduate students, Ariel Feldman and Alex Halderman, created a computer virus that they say could "steal" votes from one candidate and give them to another -- and go undetected.

"You have to be a good programmer -- not a genius -- to do this," Halderman said. "I believe a good programmer could reproduce our virus without very much effort."

Felten and his team targeted the most commonly used electronic voting machines in the United States, the Diebold AccuVote-TS. In November, almost 10 percent of American voters will find the TS or a similar model, the TSx, in the booth when they go to the polls. About 80 percent of voting in the United States is now electronic.

The AccuVote machines are small desktop computers that include a touch screen. They can print out their results, but the totals on Election Day are meant to be recovered electronically, the better to ensure accuracy.

The Princeton team was given one of these machines by someone, they said, who prefers to remain anonymous.