And it's not every day an academic paper makes news around the world. But the caper reported by Halderman and three U-M collaborators in February was irresistible: they'd elected Bender--the alcoholic, whore-mongering, chain-smoking robot from the TV show Futurama--president of the Washington, D.C., school board.
The good news is it was only a test. The District's government was planning on using an online voting program in an actual 2010 school board election, and to demonstrate its invulnerability, they dared hackers to crack their system. Halderman, a youthful-looking U-M electrical engineering professor specializing in applied computer security, took the dare. He recruited grad students Scott Wolchok and Eric Wustrow and technical staffer Dawn Isabel to help. "All of them were instrumental in the success," he says. "I oversaw the project, but as always, it was the students who did all the work."
How'd they do it? "We found a way to create fake ballots that the system had to examine, and while it was doing so, we slipped a command onto their server to subvert their voting software. What we did was essentially take control of their server, and after that, we replaced all the votes with ballots of our own choosing based on who we thought the computer would vote for if it was evil: Bender, for instance." Getting a fictional robot elected school board president wasn't all they did. "Internet security tends to be very brittle," says Halderman, "and once we got inside, we got a lot of access." They not only accessed every voter's past voting history but also made sure that in the future "everybody would be voting for our candidates no matter who they voted for."