Over the past few months, there’ve been a number of reports that state voter registration databases have come under cyberattack. Most recently, FBI Director James Comey discussed the attacks in a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. While details have been few, between what’s been reported by the FBI recently, and the various attacks on the email accounts of political parties and political leaders in the U.S., it’s seems clear that the U.S. election infrastructure is being probed for vulnerabilities.
So exactly how secure are state voter registration databases? I’ve been asked about this a number of times recently, by the media, colleagues, and students.
The potential threats to state voter registration databases have been known for a long time. In fact, I wrote a paper on this topic in October 2005 — that’s not a typo, October 2005. The paper, “Potential Threats to Statewide Voter Registration Systems”, is available as a Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project Working Paper. It’s also part of a collection of working papers in a NIST report, “Developing an Analysis of Threats to Voting Systems: Preliminary Workshop Summary.”
The context for my 2005 paper was that states were then rushing to implement their new computerized statewide voter registries, as required after the passage of the Help America Vote Act. At the time, a number of researchers (myself included) were concerned that in the rush to develop and implement these databases, and that important questions about their security and integrity needed to be addressed. So the paper was meant to provide some guidance about the potential security and integrity problems, in the hopes that they would be better studied and addressed in the near future.
The four primary types of threats that I wrote about regarded:
- Authenticity of the registration file: attacks on the transmission path of voter registration data from local election officials to the state database, or attacks on the transmission path of data between the state registry to other state officials (for example, departments of motor vehicles).
- Security of personal information in the file: state voter files contain a good deal of personal information, including names, birthdates, addresses, and contact information, which could be quite valuable to attackers.
- Integrity of the file: the primary data files could be corrupted, either by mistakes which enter the data and are difficult to remove, or by systematic attack.
- System failure: the files could fail at important moments, either due to problems with their architecture or technology, or if they come under systematic “denial of service” attacks.
By 2010, when I was a member of a National Academies panel, “Improving State Voter Registration Databases”, many of these same concerns were raised by panelists, and by the many election officials and observers of elections who provided input to the panel. It wasn’t clear how much progress had been made by 2010, towards making sure that the state voter registration systems then in place were secure.
Fast-forward to 2016, and very little research has been done on the security and integrity of state voter registration databases; despite the concerns raised in 2005 and 2010, there’s not been a great deal of research focused on the security of these systems, certainly nowhere near the amount of research that has focused on the security of other components of the American election infrastructure, in particular, the security of remote and in-person voting systems. I’d be happy to hear of research that folks have done; I’m aware of only a very few research projects that have looked at state voter registration systems. For example, there’s a paper that I worked on in 2009 with Jeff Jonas, Bill Winkler, and Rebecca Wright, where we matched the voter registration files from Oregon and Washington, in an effort to determine the utility of interstate matching to find duplicates between the states. Another paper that I know of is by Steve Ansolabehere and Eitan Hersh, which looks at the quality of the information in state voter registries. But there’s not been a lot of systematic study of the security of state voter registries; I recommend that researchers (like our Voting Technology Project) direct resources towards studying voter registration systems now, and in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election.
In addition to calling for more research on the security of state voter registration databases, election officials can take some immediate steps. The obvious step is to take action to make sure that these databases are now as secure as possible, and to determine whether there is any forensic evidence that the files might have been attacked or tampered with recently. A second step is to make sure that the database system will be robust in the face of a systematic denial of service attack. Third, election officials can devise a systematic approach towards providing pre- and post-election audits of their databases, something that I’ve strongly recommended in other work on election administration auditing (with Lonna Atkeson and Thad Hall). If election officials do audit their voter registration databases and processes, those reports should be made available to the public.