Friday, August 29, 2008

How are voting machines tested? 

I've written before about the limitations on the "certification" of voting machines.

There's been more talk about it recently. Wired magazine's criticism of voting machine testing notes that problems go years without being fixed, and that the testing consists of going down a checklist that often has nothing to do with reliability or security. Worse, the software running in your election may be different from the software that got certified. University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones proposes testing procedures for voting machines including election-day tests aimed at catching malicious software that gives the right answers until it sees it's in a real election.

Nobody in those discussions mentions a key point. If you could make software reliable by testing it, we'd see a lot fewer bugs in our daily live. Security is even harder to test for than reliability. A program can run just fine and be insecure.

The way to get secure software is to start at the design stage and build it from the ground up to resist or detect attack. For example, the software that adds up the vote totals from the precincts shouldn't allow the machine operator to change the totals without even creating a record of the change. One widely used design did allow that.

The next step in improving software security is to let qualified people, lots of them, look for hidden flaws. That includes cryptographers, but also the kinds of sideways-thinking people who like solving puzzles and doing things that are supposed to be impossible.

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