Serious security flaws in the software used to register voting tallies in Germany and transmit them across the country have been found by a hackers’ collective, who have warned of the possibility of external attacks.
A member of the collective, Martin Tschirsich, an IT student from Darmstadt, said he was astonished to come across the weaknesses in the 30-year old system.
Voting in Germany is done with pen and paper, and the results are counted by hand and then organised by computer. The hackers said while final results could not be changed, a false early result could easily be sent out, prompting chaos and confusion.
“First of all I thought this can’t be possible,” Tschirsich told hessenschau.de. “Trust in the election process could be destroyed if the official result was to differ significantly from the preliminary ones.”
He said he acted out of the need to protect the democratic process by informing the authorities of the vulnerabilities, which he believed could have been spotted by “even the most average” IT student.
The company that runs the software, vote iT, said it was working to fix the problems.
Tschirsich said he had gone to the media with his findings after being spurned by both vote iT and the electoral offices. “They were extremely deprecatory towards me,” he said.
The hacker collective Chaos Computer Club (CCC) said it had discovered a series of failings in the software that made it “highly vulnerable” to manipulation.
Security analysts have long warned that certain German authorities have taken a naive approach to election security, with officials often saying that a hand-counted result could not be manipulated. But the high-profile incidents of hacking in the US and France – in which the private documents of Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron have been circulated – have served as a wake-up call.
A widespread acceptance of Russian interference in both the US and France, as well as a hack attack on the Bundestag in 2015 which is said to have had all the hallmarks of Russian involvement, have prompted the German government to boost both its voting technology and election security, though few concrete details of measures taken have been released.
An updated version of the program, known as PC-Wahl, will be ready before the 24 September election day with enhanced with new security mechanisms , but the CCC said it had been able to circumvent them.
Linus Neumann, of the CCC, which calls itself Europe’s largest association of hackers, said the measures had been hastily undertaken and “already during superficial testing have proved to be inadequate to eliminate the weaknesses”.
In an apparent reaction to news of the software weaknesses, election administrators and returning officers have agreed to adopt what has been described as a “more analogue” approach to tabulating the results, using telephone calls between returning officers.
“We can fall back on these registration chains if, against our expectations, we have problems with PC-Wahl which cannot be solved,” said the chief election administrator, Dieter Sarreither.
Die Zeit has called the decision a “slap in the face for Germany’s reputation as an IT leader”.
With just two weeks to go before Germans vote, polls released on Friday showed a drop in support for the Social Democrats under Martin Schulz. The party fell two percentage points to 21%. Angela Merkel’s CDU remained on 37%.
Pollsters said Sunday’s TV duel between Merkel and Schulz, which Merkel was widely deemed to have won, had had a negative effect on the SPD’s ratings. The populist extremist Alternative für Deutschland is polling unchanged at 11%, making it the third strongest party. The leftwing Die Linke party has gained one point to reach 10%, while the pro-business FDP was up one point on 9% and the Greens remained unchanged on 8% of the vote.
Merkel’s popularity ratings had risen by four points to 63%. She is running for a fourth term in office and looks on course to win.
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