Interview with J. Alex Halderman on Cybersecurity for Online Voter Registration

photo of J. Alex Halderman

March 2013

J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, has immersed himself in security for all forms of election technology. In 2010, he led a team that hacked into a pilot Internet voting project conducted by the District of Columbia.  In short order, the website was playing the University of Michigan's fight song.

At the end of 2012, he spoke with NCSL about security issues relating to online voter registration systems. He and others wrote a letter to election officials to voice their concerns. His overall view is that online voter registration is convenient, and can be done securely, given the right attention to security during design and implementation.

Below is a condensed transcript of this “question and answer” session. For more on secuirty for online voter registration, go to NCSL's webinar, Online Voter Registration: The Bipartisan Trend in Elections.

Q:  You are noted for your work drawing attention to insecurities in certain election-related systems. What do you think about online voter registration?

A: It’s possible to do online voter registration securely. We just need to take the necessary precautions.

Q: What do you think state legislators need to know before they sign off on online voter registration?

A: What legislators need to remember is that voter registration is an important part of the overall security of the election system. Whatever steps are being taken towards online voter registration need to provide adequate resources for ensuring security. Those might include ensuring that security experts are consulted during design, adequate security testing is undertaken before the system goes live, and ongoing monitoring for threat detection efforts while the system is being operated. In the absence of protections like these, you have the possibility that you’ll have computer-based threats that could massively disrupt the elections.

Q: Let's get into security in a bit more depth. What is the goal?
A: For voter registration, a system should be able to see that you are who you say you are, and not being impersonated. In order to do that, the system needs to ask for information that only you are going to know and isn’t easy for other people to get. Online voter registration system developers thought that the driver’s license number was the secret that no one would know, but in fact in some states, that number is generated by name and date-of-birth. It might be all right to use a driver’s license number in states where that is relatively hard to get. Or states could use the last four digits of the social security number. Those are both fixes for the immediate problem.

There is a wider issue because you’re putting your voter registration database where it can be modified over the Internet. You want to be sure that the system has security testing and engineering to be sure you have the best precautions in place. In any case, when a voter changes the address online, the election officials should make sure to send a card to the old address and the new address, in case the change has been made falsely.

Q: How can states be sure they've got secure systems? 
A: There are firms that do computer security consulting or penetration testing; for them it would not be a massive undertaking to work on a system of this complexity. It would be a relatively small project. While the resources needed would be small, they would not be zero. This is a necessary expense.
There is plenty of room for improvement in the conventional paper-based registration process. The worry with the computer-based systems is that it might be easier to conceal large fraud, where it’s hard to trace back. (Editor’s note: Halderman mentioned fraud that exists with paper registrations, too, such as false names being submitted by third party registration drives.)
Q: With all that, it sounds like you aren't enthusiastic about online voter registration, and yet you started this conversation by saying it is doable.

A: Computers are very good at automating things. It’s great to make voter registration easier. We just need to make sure that we’re approaching this as a security problem, and we’re taking the necessary safeguards. This is in contrast to voting over the Internet, where I don’t think the technology is ready to do that securely. For voter registration, which does not have the same kinds of ballot secrecy problems … we just need to apply existing technology correctly.
J. Alex Halderman can be reached at