NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

Washington’s incumbent Secretary of State could be doing more to lead on cybersecurity

Respond­ing to Don­ald Trump’s absurd recent alle­ga­tions about elec­tion rig­ging, incum­bent Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman today pub­lished a stern­ly-word­ed state­ment rebuk­ing her par­ty’s nom­i­nee (though not by name) and express­ing full con­fi­dence in Wash­ing­ton State’s own elec­tions systems.

Said Wyman:

In recent days, we have heard heat­ed cam­paign rhetoric about Amer­i­can elec­tions being “rigged” and some­how pre­de­ter­mined. This kind of base­less accu­sa­tion is irre­spon­si­ble and threat­ens to under­mine vot­er con­fi­dence on this most basic foun­da­tion of democracy.

As a twen­ty-four year elec­tion admin­is­tra­tor at the state and local lev­el, with close rela­tion­ships with the nation­al elec­tions com­mu­ni­ty, fed­er­al secu­ri­ty experts and inde­pen­dent aca­d­e­mics, I have full and com­plete con­fi­dence in our sys­tem. Every eli­gi­ble bal­lot will be han­dled secure­ly and will be tab­u­lat­ed care­ful­ly and accurately.

As bal­lots go out this week, I am pleased to note that our paper-based sys­tem cre­ates an audit trail. Our state reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem remains cyber­se­cure and our tab­u­la­tion sys­tems in the coun­ties are air-gapped and not con­nect­ed to the Internet.

We have mul­ti­ple lay­ers of secu­ri­ty, both phys­i­cal and electronic.

Vot­er fraud in the Unit­ed States is con­sid­ered extra­or­di­nary unlike­ly by experts. The vot­ing sys­tem is high­ly decen­tral­ized, with each state, red, blue and pur­ple, run­ning their own elec­tions with a total of over 9,000 elec­tion pro­fes­sion­als who are direct­ly account­able to elect­ed or appoint­ed offi­cials. The cul­ture is that pro­fes­sion­als leave their per­son­al pol­i­tics at the door and treat every bal­lot with integrity.

This is quite true of our 39 tire­less coun­ty audi­tors and elec­tion direc­tors. Our coun­ties oper­ate with full trans­paren­cy and wel­come observers, some even using live web­cams to show bal­lot processing.

It makes no sense that elec­tion man­agers would some­how indulge in a con­spir­a­cy across par­ty lines and state lines.

As with con­cerns about cyber­se­cu­ri­ty, Wash­ing­ton remains vig­i­lant to any pos­si­ble vot­er fraud. Vot­ers should have trust in our elec­tions sys­tem. My hope is that every reg­is­tered vot­er will con­fi­dent­ly cast their bal­lot. We will ensure their bal­lot is tab­u­lat­ed just as they cast it. There will be no rig­ging on our watch.

The paper trail our vote-by-mail sys­tem pro­duces is indeed a great thing, and we’re glad to see Sec­re­tary Wyman denounc­ing Don­ald Trump’s recent comments.

But we have not for­got­ten that she recent­ly called for leg­is­la­tion that would allow her office to con­duct “cit­i­zen­ship checks”. As she says in the release above, vot­er fraud in the Unit­ed States is con­sid­ered extra­or­di­nar­i­ly unlike­ly by experts. We agree, and that’s why we don’t need “cit­i­zen­ship checks” of our vot­er rolls.

Repub­li­cans in oth­er states (like North Car­oli­na, Penn­syl­va­nia, and Wis­con­sin) have used nonex­is­tent “vot­er fraud” as an excuse to ram through vot­er sup­pres­sion schemes that tar­get Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers. Some Repub­li­cans have even admit­ted that the point of these laws are to dis­en­fran­chise voters.

Like Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can Mike Turzai (R‑Allegheny), who boast­ed in 2012, “Vot­er ID, which is gonna allow Gov­er­nor Rom­ney to win the state of Penn­syl­va­nia — done.” (Penn­syl­va­nia ulti­mate­ly sup­port­ed Barack Oba­ma, but the law did cost the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee some sup­port, as Repub­li­cans intend­ed.)

Wash­ing­ton State does­n’t need cit­i­zen­ship checks, but it does need a strong com­mit­ment from its next Sec­re­tary of State to bol­ster cybersecurity.

Kim Wyman’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Tina Pod­lodows­ki has made this a cam­paign issue. Last month, Wyman’s office put out a press release announc­ing that a “design flaw” in the state’s MyVote vot­er lookup tool had been cor­rect­ed. The release neglect­ed to thank Pod­lodowski’s cam­paign for flag­ging the issue. The “design flaw” exposed vot­er data that isn’t sup­posed to be avail­able to the public.

That par­tic­u­lar issue has been cor­rect­ed, but there are oth­er steps that Wash­ing­ton’s Sec­re­tary of State should take to improve cybersecurity.

Here are sev­er­al rec­om­men­da­tions from NPI.

Force HTTPS on all websites

As a secu­ri­ty-con­scious orga­ni­za­tion, NPI is a pro­po­nent of secure pro­to­cols that encrypt data as it trav­els across the Internet.

One of the most impor­tant pro­to­cols avail­able to us is HTTPS, which uti­lizes Trans­port Lay­er Secu­ri­ty, or TLS, for its mod­ern imple­men­ta­tion. (TLS replaces the now dep­re­cat­ed Secure Sock­ets Lay­er, or SSL.)

Over the past two years, we’ve worked to enable HTTPS on all of the web­sites we main­tain, and route inse­cure HTTP requests to HTTPS instead.

Try to con­nect to over HTTP, and you’ll find you can’t — you’ll be upgrad­ed to HTTPS auto­mat­i­cal­ly by default.

The Sec­re­tary of State should fol­low suit, as should all pub­lic agen­cies at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment — local, state, and fed­er­al. At present, HTTPS is not required on all web­sites oper­at­ed by the Sec­re­tary of State. Recent­ly, the main web­site ( went HTTPS only, which we’re glad to see, but this is not yet the case for many oth­er domains/subdomains the Sec­re­tary of State controls.

Here are some exam­ples of pages/URLs where HTTPS is not yet being forced:

For HTTPS to be prop­er­ly forced, all images, scripts, and embed­ded media must be served over HTTPS, oth­er­wise mixed-con­tent warn­ings will be generated.

A quick crawl of by NPI found a num­ber of pages that still have inse­cure con­tent, such as this one, this one, and this one.

Qual­sys Labs grades as hav­ing an “A” on its high­ly use­ful secure host­ing serv­er test, which is reassuring.

( also scores an “A” along with oth­er NPI websites.)

Reset pass­words by hav­ing the user fol­low a link and answer questions

The Sec­re­tary of State’s web­site allows Wash­ing­to­ni­ans to cre­ate online accounts in order to do busi­ness with the office elec­tron­i­cal­ly. For exam­ple, a cit­i­zen may cre­ate an account to file ini­tia­tives online. If you lose your pass­word, it’s pos­si­ble to reset it with­out hav­ing to call up the Sec­re­tary of State’s office.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pass­word reset tool cur­rent­ly sends new pass­words across the Inter­net, unen­crypt­ed, in the body of an email. That’s bad.

Here’s an exam­ple pass­word reset mes­sage that the sys­tem cur­rent­ly generates:

Your pass­word has been reset at. You may login with your email address and pass­word below at

Notice the URL above begins with the http:// pre­fix, not https://. Because is now HTTPS by default, the user is thank­ful­ly redi­rect­ed and can­not login over an inse­cure con­nec­tion. This used to be an issue but has been corrected.


Note that this is a fake email address sub­sti­tut­ed for a real one.

New Pass­word: r3o!OhvUjqr

Note this is an fake pass­word gen­er­at­ed by NPI, replac­ing the one that came in the actu­al email gen­er­at­ed today from the Sec­re­tary of State’s system.

Office of the Sec­re­tary of State, Elec­tions Division
520 Union Ave SE, Olympia 98501
PO Box 40229, Olympia 98504

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, users aren’t prompt­ed to change pass­words once they login, nor is it obvi­ous how to update one’s account infor­ma­tion once logged in using the inse­cure­ly sent pass­word. We rec­om­mend the Sec­re­tary of State do the following:

  • Make it sim­ple and easy for users to update their pass­words once logged in. For exam­ple, on the ini­tia­tives por­tal, there should be a promi­nent links to Man­age My Account / Update My Pass­word on the My Fil­ings screen, and every oth­er screen a user sees while logged in to the system.
  • Send users a link to change their pass­word and put that in the body of the email instead of send­ing the new pass­word in the body of the email. The link should expire after twen­ty-four hours or less. The new pass­word should be cho­sen by the user and should meet min­i­mum com­plex­i­ty require­ments. Punc­tu­a­tion should be allowed and encour­aged in all passwords.
  • Require users to set up answers to a set of secu­ri­ty ques­tions and pro­vide the cor­rect answers to at least two of those ques­tions before allow­ing the account pass­word to be reset. Ques­tions like “What is your moth­er’s maid­en name?” should be avoid­ed. Ques­tions like “What is your favorite vaca­tion spot?” are more appro­pri­ate. Users should also be able to cre­ate their own ques­tions. Users who can­not answer the secu­ri­ty ques­tions should be prompt­ed to call the Sec­re­tary of State to unlock their account.

Hard­en web applications

Like NPI, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office uses soft­ware such as Word­Press to man­age con­tent. By doing some quick inspect­ing of the web­site’s source code and prob­ing for README files, I was able to learn a lot about the soft­ware the site is run­ning, includ­ing plu­g­ins, and what ver­sions of that soft­ware are cur­rent­ly in use. This could be valu­able infor­ma­tion to some­one try­ing to break in.

For secu­ri­ty rea­sons, I’m not going to elab­o­rate any fur­ther in this post regard­ing what I found, as I believe in prac­tic­ing respon­si­ble disclosure.

NPI rec­om­mends the Sec­re­tary of State take steps to hard­en its web appli­ca­tions to guard against unwant­ed intrud­ers. Steps that should be tak­en include tight­en­ing per­mis­sions, enabling defens­es that can thwart and deflect brute force attacks, and pre­vent­ing plu­g­ins from embed­ding HTML com­ments in web page source code.

Imple­ment Con­tent Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy and XSS protection

For bonus points, the Sec­re­tary of State’s office ought to begin work­ing on imple­ment­ing Con­tent Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy across all of its websites.

This is some­thing we’re start­ing to work on at NPI, to take our sites’ secu­ri­ty to the next lev­el. It’s done by set­ting serv­er headers.

As Mozil­la’s wiki explains:

Con­tent Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy (CSP) is an HTTP head­er that allows site oper­a­tors fine-grained con­trol over where resources on their site can be loaded from. The use of this head­er is the best method to pre­vent cross-site script­ing (XSS) vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Due to the dif­fi­cul­ty in retro­fitting CSP into exist­ing web­sites, CSP is manda­to­ry for all new web­sites and is strong­ly rec­om­mend­ed for all exist­ing high-risk sites.

The pri­ma­ry ben­e­fit of CSP comes from dis­abling the use of unsafe inline JavaScript. Inline JavaScript — either reflect­ed or stored — means that improp­er­ly escaped user-inputs can gen­er­ate code that is inter­pret­ed by the web brows­er as JavaScript.

By using CSP to dis­able inline JavaScript, you can effec­tive­ly elim­i­nate almost all XSS attacks against your site.

Replac­ing inline JavaScript is cer­tain­ly not sim­ple or easy to do — it takes work. But imple­ment­ing CSP leads to secur­er web­sites. We intend to do it, and we urge the Sec­re­tary of State to com­mit to doing it as well.

X‑XSS-Pro­tec­tion can and should be imple­ment­ed in the mean­time to pro­tect users who use Inter­net Explor­er or Chrome/Chromium.

The rec­om­men­da­tions out­lined above, inci­den­tal­ly, are rec­om­men­da­tions that we would urge every pub­lic agency every­where to adopt.

But because the Sec­re­tary of State’s office is respon­si­ble for so much vital record­keep­ing, coor­di­nat­ing with Wash­ing­ton’s thir­ty-nine coun­ty gov­ern­ments, it should be a cyber­se­cu­ri­ty leader, set­ting a good exam­ple for all to follow.

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  1. The ques­tion that I have is whether Kim Wyman could have can­celled this year’s Wash­ing­ton Pres­i­den­tial Pri­ma­ry. That seems to be the basis of Tina’s campaign.

    # by Mike Barer :: October 19th, 2016 at 1:59 PM
    • If you read Tina’s cam­paign mate­ri­als, you can see she’s run­ning on pri­or­i­ties like auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, same day reg­is­tra­tion, pre­paid postage for bal­lots, and out­reach to dis­ad­van­taged con­stituen­cies. Tina has said she is in favor of hold­ing a pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry, but she wants it to be mean­ing­ful (and this has long been NPI’s position).

      The pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry must be held by law every four years, but it can be can­celed, as it was in 2004 and 2012. The Sec­re­tary of State does not have the author­i­ty to can­cel the elec­tion uni­lat­er­al­ly (it requires chang­ing state law), but can ask the Leg­is­la­ture to do so. 

      Tina’s cri­tique of Kim with respect to the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry seems to be that Wyman should have pushed for its can­cel­la­tion back in 2015, when she could­n’t get the two major par­ties to agree to move it up to the ear­li­er date she want­ed, which would have made the elec­tion more rel­e­vant (at least for the Repub­li­cans; the Democ­rats had already cho­sen to uti­lize cau­cus­es). How­ev­er, Tina did not artic­u­late this cri­tique very well back in the spring at the time the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry was in the news. By that point, it was way too late to can­cel the elec­tion, which was held on the default date pre­scribed by statute. Either a date change or an out­right can­cel­la­tion of the elec­tion would have need­ed to hap­pen months sooner.

      # by Andrew :: October 19th, 2016 at 2:08 PM
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