They found a vulnerability in the way the system processes uploaded ballots. They confirmed the problem using their own test installation of the web application, and found that one could gain the same access privileges as the server application program itself, including read and write access to the encrypted ballots and database.
The problem, which geeks classify as a “shell-injection vulnerability,” has to do with the ballot upload procedure. When a voter follows the instructions and uploads a completed ballot as a PDF file, the server saves it as a temporary file and encrypts it using a command-line tool called GnuPG. Internally, the server executes the command gpg with the name of this temporary file as a parameter: gpg […] /tmp/stream,28957,0.pdf.
What they did has been :
WE realized that although the server replaces the filename with an automatically generated name (“stream,28957,0” in this example), it keeps whatever file extension the voter provided. Instead of a file ending in “.pdf,” we could upload a file with a name that ended in almost any string we wanted, and this string would become part of the command the server executed. By formatting the string in a particular way, we could cause the server to execute commands on our behalf. For example, the filename “ballot.$(sleep 10)pdf” would cause the server to pause for ten seconds (executing the “sleep 10” command) before responding. In effect, this vulnerability allowed us to remotely log in to the server as a privileged user.
J. Alex Halderman continued with some reflections on Internet Voting Security, which I simply quote, I cannot agree more than that.
The specific vulnerability that we exploited is simple to fix, but it will be vastly more difficult to make the system secure. We've found a number of other problems in the system, and everything we've seen suggests that the design is brittle: one small mistake can completely compromise its security. I described above how a small error in file-extension handling left the system open to exploitation. If this particular problem had not existed, I'm confident that we would have found another way to attack the system.
None of this will come as a surprise to Internet security experts, who are familiar with the many kinds of attacks that major web sites suffer from on a daily basis. It may someday be possible to build a secure method for submitting ballots over the Internet, but in the meantime, such systems should be presumed to be vulnerable based on the limitations of today's security technology.