Monday, October 14, 2019

Election experts warn against RFID-based voting systems

A voting system which uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to store electronic votes has been under scrutiny after election experts questioned its capacity to safeguard the integrity of election data. 

Though the voting system had been tested in a few Argentine jurisdictions, academics from around the world had not had a real chance to analyze it in detail until authorities from the Democratic Republic of Congo decided to use a similar system for the long-delayed elections of December, 2018. The decision to automate the controversial elections using an untested system drew criticism from U.S. diplomats.

According to experts from The Sentry, it is possible to manipulate the information the RFID chip contains, since the use of this unique identifier technology and radio communications give off signals that can be easily detected at distances greater than expected. Experts recommend election officials to refrain from implementing this type of technology. 

RFID technology is well known for its usefulness in tracking inventories, but its use extends to other industries, from bookstores and apparel to health and transportation. The main benefit of having RFIDs is that it allows quick communication with remote sensors. Nonetheless, however useful RFID may be for certain industries, elections are an entirely different ballgame. The capacity to allow remote sensors to read the information it contains opens the door for bad actors to hack the votes. 

An RFID-based system was ruled out in Israel in 2010 as it was considered unsafe. Researchers Yossef Oren and Avishai Wool, from the Tel-Aviv University, demonstrated that the secret of the vote was compromised with such type of systems. In their paper, they “show how the proposed system can be completely compromised using low-cost relay attacks. Our attacks allow an adversary to read out all votes already cast into the ballot box, suppress the votes of one or several voters, rewrite votes at will and even completely disqualify all votes in a single voting station. Our attacks are easy to mount, very difficult to detect, and compromise both the confidentiality and the integrity of the election system.”

The future of this technology is unknown. For now, only a few Argentine provinces have dared to use it. The elections in Congo, which led to weeks of post-election violence and political unrest, are a testament to what a poorly designed election system can do to the legitimacy of elections.