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MIT researchers say mobile voting app piloted in U.S. is rife with vulnerabilities

Elections officials in numerous states have piloted various mobile voting applications as a method of expanding access to the polls, but MIT researchers say one of the more popular apps has security vulnerabilities that could open it up to tampering by bad actors.

The MIT analysis of the application, called Voatz, highlighted a number of weaknesses that could allow hackers to “alter, stop, or expose how an individual user has voted.”

Additionally, the researchers found that Voatz’s use of Palo Alto-based vendor Jumio for voter identification and verification poses potential privacy issues for users.

The study comes on the heels this month’s trouble-plagued Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus, which used an online app to store votes but failed to do so accurately because of a coding flaw and insufficient testing.

Some security experts have long argued that the only secure form of voting is paper ballots.

iPhone iOS voatz blockchain voting Voatz

Voatz iPhone mobile voting application.

The Voatz mobile voting application has been used in small pilots involving  only about 600 voters total in Denver, West Virginia, five counties in Oregon, Utah and Washington State, where the main focus was on inclusivity for absentee voters living overseas.

In response, Voatz called the MIT report “flawed” because it based its analysis on a long-outdated Android version of the app.

“Had the researchers taken the time, like nearly 100 other researchers, to test and verify their claims using the latest version of our platform via our public bug bounty program on HackerOne, they would not have ended up producing a report that asserts claims on the basis of an erroneous method,” Voatz stated in a blog post today.

“We want to be clear that all nine of our governmental pilot elections conducted to date, involving less than 600 voters, have been conducted safely and securely with no reported issues,” Voatz said.

In 2018, West Virginia piloted Voatz’s mobile voting app for resident service members and family living overseas who wanted to vote in the midterm general election. 

West Virginia Secretary of State’s office pointed to a Department of Homeland Security security assessment of the 2018 Voatz pilots indicating there was “no threat actor behaviors or artifacts of past nefarious activities were detected in the vendor’s networks.”

Audits of paper ballots created by the Voatz plaform on election day also confirmed the results were accurate, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

“We want to get the word out to media outlets like Computerworld to ensure WV voters that we are taking every possible precaution to balance election security and integrity with WV requirement to provide absentee ballots electronically to overseas, military and absentee voters living with physical disabilities,” Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said via email.

The MIT study, however, underscored the need for Voatz’s mobile app design to be more transparent because public information about the technology is “vague” at best.

Voatz’s platform uses a combination of biometrics, such as mobile-phone based facial recognition, and hardware-backed keystores to provide end-to-end encrypted and voter-verifiable ballots. It also uses blockchain as an immutable electronic ledger to store voting results.

Voatz has declined to provide formal details about its platform, citing the need to protect intellectual property, the researchers said in their paper.

In a blog post today, Voatz called the researchers’ approach “flawed,” which “invalidates any claims about their ability to compromise the overall system.

“In short, to make claims about a backend server without any evidence or connection to the server negates any degree of credibility on behalf of the researchers,” Voatz said.

The researchers also called Voatz out for reporting a University of Michigan researcher who in 2018 conducted an analysis of the Voatz app. “This resulted in the FBI conducting an investigation against the researcher,” the MIT researchers said.

It’s not the first time Voatz has been criticized for not being more open about its technology. Last May, computer scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of South Carolina, along with election oversight groups, published a paper that criticized Voatz for not releasing any “detailed technical description” of its technology.

“There are at least four companies attempting to offer internet or mobile voting solutions for high-stakes elections, and one 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has included voting from a mobile device via the blockchain in his policy plank,” the MIT researchers said in their paper. “To our knowledge, only Voatz has successfully fielded such a system.”

Along with Voatz, Democracy Live, VotemSecureVote and Scytl have all piloted mobile or online voting technology in various public or private balloting that included company stockholder and college board elections. Most recently, a Seattle district piloted the Democracy Live technology in a board of supervisors election that was open to 1.2 million registered voters.

Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit focused on promoting mobile voting as a way to increase voter turnout, has helped fund and promote Voatz and Democracy Live.

In a statement to Computerworld, Tusk said it feels confident in the results of all the pilot elections because it conducted independent, third-party audits “which showed that votes cast over the blockchain were recorded and tabulated accurately.”

“With that being said, we always welcome new security information and will work with security experts to review this paper,” Tusk said. “Security is an iterative process that can only get better over time. There is no room for error in our elections, especially when it comes to data leakage, compromised encryption, broken authentication, or denial-of-service attacks.”

Medici Ventures, the wholly-owned investment subsidiary of, has also backed Voatz, whose application has mainly been used to allow absentee voter service members and their families to cast their ballots via their smartphones from anywhere in the world.

Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock and president of Medici Ventures, responded in a statement to a New York Times article about the MIT study, saying he believes the Voatz technology is responsible and safe.

“It not only prevents voting fraud, but it also protects the privacy of each voter. The Voatz app even generates a paper ballot that can be audited to guarantee the fidelity of the vote,” Johnson said. “This is, we believe, the right path forward to safe innovation in election technology. We should not let ourselves derail the future of voting.”

Critics of mobile or online voting, including security experts, believe it opens up the prospect of server penetration attacks, client-device malware, denial-of-service attacks and other disruptions — all associated with infecting voters’ computers with malware or infecting the computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots.

Jeremy Epstein, vice chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s US Technology Policy Committee (USTPC), has been a vocal critic of mobile voting platforms, including Voatz. He said the MIT study was “very thorough” and demonstrates exactly what experts have been saying for years.

“Internet voting is risky. It’s no surprise that the Voatz system is vulnerable to many kinds of attacks, even to an attacker with no access to source code or other inside information,” Epstein said via email. “The attacks demonstrated by MIT are well within the capabilities of nation-state adversaries who are interested in manipulating US elections, and such an adversary won’t publish their results as the MIT team has done, leaving us with an election that may be undetectably manipulated.”

The five-year-old Voatz slammed the MIT researchers for never connecting even the outdated app they used to the company’s servers, which are hosted by Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

In the absence of connecting to the actual servers recording public votes, “the researchers fabricated an imagined version of the Voatz servers, hypothesized how they worked, and then made assumptions about the interactions between the system components that are simply false,” Voatz said.

Epstein retorted that Voatz’s comments “demonstrate that they don’t understand either the severity of the attacks or the way security works in general.

“Any election official using Voatz products would be well advised to cancel their plans, before a stealthy attack in a real election compromises democracy,” Epstein said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Researchers to launch intentionally ‘vulnerable’ blockchain at Black Hat

Hoping to raise awareness about blockchain vulnerabilities, cybersecurity firm  Kudelski Security next week plans to launch the industry’s first “purposefully vulnerable” blockchain – and will demo it at next month’s Black Hat conference.

Kudelski Security’s FumbleChain project is aimed at highlighting vulnerabilities in blockchain ecosystems, according to Nathan Hamiel, head of cybersecurity research at Kudelski.

The flawed blockchain ledger is written in Python 3.0, making it easy for anyone to read and modify its source code, and it’s modular – allowing users to hack and add new challenges to promote continuous learning.

The Kudelski blockchain will be available as both a code download on GitHub and as a demo on the company’s website, allowing testers to play with its features and learn how it works without having to download code.

“For the most part, blockchains aren’t inherently secure,” Hamiel said. “There’s an entire ecosystem around blockchain, just like there is around traditional applications. Quite often you’ll have vulnerabilities that crop up in places that are rather unexpected. What we wanted to do was create this pre-made blockchain, create this educational framework around it so you can learn more about it and more about blockchain security.”

The concept is similar to other open-source projects, such as creating web applications so developers can test their skills attacking them to expose vulnerabilities.

As a write-once, append-many technology, blockchain itself is highly secure, but experts point out the distributed ledger technology does not live in a vacuum. In order to be of use, applications such as cryptocurrencies are embedded into the blockchain – making it vulnerable to certain attack vectors.

At its most basic, the technology is a peer-to-peer-based distributed ledger, or database, organized by a set of protocols combined with a blockchain; in essence, it’s  a series of encrypted sets of data that record immutable changes over time. While that may be relatively straightforward, how the technology is implemented can lead to a variety of permutations.

“Like most things, the devil is in the details,” said Jack Gold, principal research analyst at J. Gold Associates. “Blockchain is a specification more than a technology, and a relatively loose spec at that. …There are various ways to implement it…, so if you implement in a insecure fashion, it can be broken.”

James Wester, research director for IDC Worldwide Blockchain Strategies, said he’s often tasked with defining blockchain along with a “basket of technologies” that fall under the general heading of “blockchain,” including tokenized assets, cryptocurrencies, crypto wallets, smart contracts, and self-sovereign identity; all of the latter group are applications or architectures that can run on top of a blockchain network, but are not a native part of the technology.

“It’s possible to have relatively smart discussions about the technology without actually knowing some of those differences, so many semi-informed people don’t even bother to learn the terms and technology,” Wester said.

Both public and private blockchains – ones that require pre-approval to join – are natively secure because they’re immutable (i.e., each record or block is unchangeable and tied to all others), and adding new blocks requires a consensus among users. (How large that consensus must be depends on the blockchain in use; for some, it’s 50%, for others, it’s more.)

The immutability and consensus requirements of blockchains make them natively more secure than most other networking technologies. But, depending on the architecture and who’s running the nodes and where, blockchains are vulnerable to attack, as has been seen time and time again.

While blockchain provides security for the integrity of the data recorded on it, the blockchain alone, without additional technologies or systems, cannot protect against unauthorized access such as a data breach, according to the report from Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

For example, a recent “51% attack” on the Ethereum Classic token exchange showed why even blockchain is not impermeable to gaming. A 51% attack refers to a bad actor who gains control of the majority of CPUs in a cryptocurrency mining pool. Such attacks are generally limited to smaller blockchains with fewer nodes, because they’re more susceptible to a single person seizing control based on a Proof of Work (PoW) consensus mechanism.

Cryptocurrency wallets, which store private keys enabling access to bitcoin and other digital currencies, have also been vulnerable to attacks.

“If you’re a company looking to use blockchain – and not just for crypto currency –  the amount of time and effort you put into securing the various components of the ledger and process are key,” Gold said.

Data transparency, or the ability for all parties on a blockchain to view transactions, is part of its appeal because bad actors can quickly be identified if they attempt to add unverified data. That transparency, however, can also be a threat. For example, in a settlement or clearing system for financial institutions where confidentiality may be a key component of security, system data transparency is a security risk, the Federal Reserve report noted.

Blockchain, Hamiel said, is a technology steeped in hype that often leads to contradictory claims: advocates praise it and claim it will change the world while  “haters” – no matter what problem blockchain does actually solve – refuse to ever adopt it.

“The truth is somewhere in the middle,” Hamiel said. “There are certainly problems blockchain solves, and I think it’s an interesting area that people have a lot of questions about. People are curious about the technology, but they don’t have a way to easily gain access to information about it without spending a lot of time to learn about it. I’m hoping this solves that.”

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