Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pennsylvania Yanks Voter Site After Data Leak

The Washington Post published this story today by IDG News Service reporter Robert McMillan that describes a Pennsylvania state web site where 30,000 voter registration records, including birthdate and drivers' license numbers could be accessed online. My comments are included in the article featured below.


With voting in Pennsylvania's presidential primary just a month away, the state was forced to pull the plug on a voter registration Web site Tuesday after it was found to be exposing sensitive data about voters in the state.

The problem lay in an online voter registration application form that was designed to simplify the task of registering to vote. State residents used it to enter their information on the Web site, which then generated a printable form that could be mailed to state election officials. Pennsylvania's Department of State disabled the registration form late Tuesday after being informed of the vulnerability by IDG News Service.

Because of a Web programming error, the Web site was allowing anyone on the Internet to view the forms, which contained data such as the voter's name, date of birth, driver's license number and political party affiliation. On some forms, the last four digits of social security numbers could also be seen.

"Upon learning of this situation, the Department of State acted immediately to disable the specific page," said Department of State Spokeswoman Leslie Amoros in an e-mail message.

"The Department is reviewing the facts to determine how this information became available," she said. "We are also taking all necessary steps to correct the situation and are implementing processes aimed to prevent future occurrences."

The flaw was first reported by a reader of, who stumbled upon the bug after filling out a voter registration form.

"Being a security conscious programmer, I decided to test," wrote the reader, identified only as mtg169, "Very bad PA...very very bad!"

The bug did not expose all registration data, just the information supplied by those who used the Web site's online form. About 30,000 voter registration records appeared to be available on the site.

"That's bad, really bad," said Jeremiah Grossman, chief technology officer with Web security vendor WhiteHat Security. In an e-mail, he said he hadn't seen this type of error on a voter registration Web site before, but that it was caused by a common Web programming error. "We've seen a great many vulnerabilities like this in the course of doing our work."

Many counties offer online accessto voter registration data, so that residents can check on their status, but these databases typically remove data that could be misused, such as date of birth, social security numbers and driver's license numbers.

The last four digits of a social security number are often used as a security question, required to access certain types of billing accounts, and a skilled identity thief could use a driver's license number, name and address in a check forging scheme, according to privacy experts.

"There are so many alarming things about this," said Kim Alexander, president of California Voter Foundation, which has studied voter privacy across the U.S. "It just seems to be a case where you have government agencies using sophisticated technology in thoughtless ways."

With an important presidential primary set to occur in Pennsylvania on April 22, it's particularly worrisome that this data could have been accessed by anyone, she added. "All kinds of dirty tricks could be played," she said. "In heated campaigns we've seen cases where someone will call a whole bunch of voters and tell them that the election date has been changed."

While states may make these databases available for political purposes, their use is strictly controlled and sensitive information like driver's license numbers is removed. With the data on the Web, this is no longer possible, Alexander said. "You lose all those protections when you have this data available on the Internet."

"It's unprecedented that this information would be so freely available on the Internet," she added.

Ironically, with many voters already avoiding voter registration because of privacy concerns, Pennsylvania's efforts to help voters may end up backfiring, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse "When word gets out, it will be one of those things that will deter people from registering to vote," she said.

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