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Researchers break open voting machines in test of security

Argonne National Laboratory researchers Roger Johnst(left) JWarner demonstrated how voting machines can be tampered with.  Warner removed circuit panel

Argonne National Laboratory researchers Roger Johnston (left) and Jon Warner demonstrated how voting machines can be tampered with. Warner removed a circuit panel, an easy access into the machine. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2012 6:07AM

Using a straightened paper clip, Jon Warner needed fewer than 10 seconds to pop a crucial component out of the touch-screen voting machine.

The simple manuever exposed a green circuit board — opening the machine to electronic sabotage that could steal or alter votes cast on it, said Warner, a security researcher at Argonne National Laboratory near suburban Lemont.

“You can reach inside and do lots of damage pretty easily,” agreed Warner’s boss, Roger Johnston, after the recent demonstration, which they said illustrates a weakness that could be exploited to attack the commonly used machines.

But Chicago and suburban election officials said the simulated attacks don’t depict real-world conditions or accurately show if voting machines can be vulnerable to tampering.

The Argonne tests involve different models of touch-screen machines and don’t take into account a host of other security measures used in Chicago, Cook County and other collar counties, election officials said.

“It’s not even apples and oranges, it’s apples and hippos,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, who described the tests as “a side show.”

And officials say there are political overtones to the research.

A group that earlier this year signed a six-month contract with Argonne to conduct voting machine research has ties to the Cook County GOP and a political incentive to raise questions about voting machine security in Democratic strongholds like Chicago and Cook County.

The group, Defend the Vote, is led by suburban resident Sharon Meroni, tapped earlier this year by the county GOPs to head a group aimed at finding Republican election judges.

“In this case, the group has a partisan agenda,” said Courtney Greve, a spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr, who oversees county elections.

Defend the Vote and Johnston recently approached Cook County and Chicago to ask to study their voting machines to see how vulnerable they might be to physical attacks such as implanting electronic bugs that could surreptiously alter vote tallies.

Both agencies summarily rejected those requests.

“The idea of turning over voting equipment to any group, especially a few weeks before an election with early voting under way, would be irresponsible,” Greve said.

“The concept is absurd,” Allen agreed.

Argonne routinely signs consulting contracts with organizations like Defend the Vote, said Johnston, who described it as “in principle, a non-partisan group,” saying disputes about the political connections of the group overlook the larger issue.

“I don’t think election security should be a partisan issue,” said Johnston, a systems engineer who heads Argonne’s vulnerability assessment team, which studies everything from nuclear safety systems to biometric scanners and even police handcuffs.

Lacking access to voting machines being used by local election agencies, the researchers tested two older electronic machines, which are earlier variants of some devices used in Chicago, Cook County and some suburban counties.

Johnston and Warner said they were surprised at how quickly they could gain access to vital parts of the computerized counters.

Getting inside the machines allows a hacker to quickly embed a bug — such as an electronic microprocessor — that could secretly shift votes cast for one candidate to another candidate listed on the ballot. Those type of devices could be built with parts bought from a local electronics store by anyone with some knowledge of computer technology, Johnston said.

Those devices could be installed in a minute or so if machines are left accessible at storage facilities between elections, while being shipped to polling places or when they sit at polling places just before Election Day.

“We’re in a situation where the average person can tamper with voting machines, really, if they’re just resourceful,” said Johnston, who has studied security systems for 20 years.

Election officials scoffed at those claims, saying the voting machines are protected by a range of security measures, including heavily secured warehouses, locked storage cabinets at polling places and tamper-resistant seals.

“Our warehouse has motion detectors, [security]cameras in place and other measures. Even I have trouble getting in there sometimes,” said Robert Saar, executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission.

Once shipped to polling places, the machines, Saar said, are stored in “10-gauge steel lockers with locks and seals.”

In Cook County, election workers run software checks to make sure the machines haven’t been hacked, then physically inspect the interior of the machines to make sure no tampering has occurred.

“There’s a host of checks and precautions in place because we take security so seriously,” Greve said.

Paper receipts of votes are checked against electronic tallies to ensure they match, election officials said.

“We have never come across a discrepancy that would indicate any kind of tampering,” Allen said.

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