WiFi for Voting Machines? Why Not, Says US Election Agency

The U.S. agency overseeing elections has “quietly weakened a key element of proposed security standards…” reports the Associated Press, “raising concern among voting-integrity experts that many such systems will remain vulnerable to hacking.

“The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is poised to approve its first new security standards in 15 years after an arduous process involving multiple technical and elections community bodies and open hearings. But ahead of a scheduled February 10 ratification vote by commissioners, the EAC leadership tweaked the draft standards to remove language that stakeholders interpreted as banning wireless modems and chips from voting machines as a condition for federal certification. The mere presence of such wireless hardware poses unnecessary risks for tampering that could alter data or programs on election systems, say computer security specialists and activists, some of whom have long complained than the EAC bends too easily to industry pressure.

Agency leaders argue that overall, the revised guidelines represent a major security improvement. They stress that the rules require manufacturers to disable wireless functions present in any machines, although the wireless hardware can remain.

In a February 3 letter to the agency, computer scientists and voting integrity activists say the change “profoundly weakens voting system security and will introduce very real opportunities to remotely attack election systems.” They demand the wireless hardware ban be restored…

The ban on wireless hardware in voting machines would force vendors who currently build systems with off-the-shelf components to rely on more expensive custom-built hardware, said EAC Chair Benjamin Hovland, which could hurt competition in an industry already dominated by a trio of companies. He also argued that the guidelines are voluntary, although many state laws are predicated on them… Hovland stressed that the amended guidelines say all wireless capability must be disabled in voting equipment. But computer experts say that if the hardware is present, the software that activates it can be introduced. And the threat is not just from malign actors but also from the vendors and their clients, who could enable the wireless capability for maintenance purposes then forget to turn it off, leaving machines vulnerable…

Experts are pushing for universal use of hand-marked paper ballots and better audits to bolster confidence in election results.

TL;DR: Legally, voting machines can be pretty insecure.