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August 11 , 2003 | feature

e-Voting is one of those things Iíve been dreading for several years. Since it first became a technological possibility, the thought of all of the security risks involved has been swarming in my head like a hornetís nest. On the surface, it sounds like a beautifully democratic thing Ė each person anywhere in the world just needs to get him or herself to a computer in order to vote. But when one puts together the current legal ramifications and the technological flaws, itís actually rather scary.

Here we are, placing our most cherished right as Americans Ė the right to vote Ė in the hands of a bucket of overheated electrons, with an operating system likley filled with security holes, buggy voting software built on top of that, and restrictions on the voting systems themselves with logical flaws. This is a system just waiting to be hacked.

But it's technological innovation so therefore itís good according to the government. Of course, the companies who developed the systems market them as quite efficient in comparison to our current systems. That may be true, but these systems are dangerous for the same reason that biometrics in IDs are dangerous: weíre creating a medium where technology assumes authenticity when the contrary is actually the case.

Thereís another reason to worry. The Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE), a small, Pentagon-run program, may become the standard for Internet voting by Americans who are abroad. Of course, the system uses Microsoft Windows, which makes me cringe. And they say security is of utmost concern to them. Even the supposedly secure electronic voting machines in use here in the U.S. that backup their results on CD-ROM are built on closed systems. Security by obscurity is never a smart option.

One part of the problem stems from government-mandated research. The government appropriates, as in this case, $1 billion to put toward electronic voting systems, without first considering security implications. Then they decide which technology to use. Not scientists. So policy makers lobbied by companies who make these systems do not generally have the technical know-how or information available to show vulnerabilities and problems.

As much as we would like to think the policy makers would hear about this issue, itís rather unlikely. Congress critters have aides to read news and filter their e-mail not because theyíre insensitive but because they truly do not have the time to wade through it all and may or may not have actually touched a computer themselves in the past twenty years. There are groups who talk to the policy makers and represent the groups of concerned technology professionals who understand the risks associated with this type of system. In fact, there are quite a few activists out there who are saddling up to take their concerns to the sheriff. The USACM (U.S. Association for Computing Machinery public policy committee) is quite concerned with this issue, as is the Center for Public Integrity. A bunch of these people recently gathered in Denver to discuss verified voting and how to make it a reality.

In my neck of the woods, Santa Clara county was working on approving some electronic voting machines that are not technically secure and the votes are not counted until required by law Ė at the end of the election. As we all know, the loser(s) generally concede well before that time, so any voter fraud would either not be discovered at all or be discovered too late to fix the problem. David Dill, a Stanford computer science professor, started an online petition and a website, VerifiedVoting.org, in order to raise awareness on the e-voting issue.

Still, organizations like the League of Women Voters, Iím ashamed to say, donít get it. They think that just because e-voting in theory leads to a more pure democracy, itís a good thing in any form. Itís not. The problems of the 2000 election are minuscule compared to what could happen without verifiable electronic voting systems Ė especially if voting law changes donít occur to where we have a run-off between the two leading vote-getters. We could be stuck with elections like 2000 for a long time given the current state of politics in the U.S.. Sure there have been touch-screen systems in place for ten years but theyíre not all the same and each one could have its own problems. There are ways around technical problems, but letís face it Ė nobody ever changes these things until after major errors occur. The issue now is to get these concerns heard before such systems are adopted. We still have a long way to go.

bio:
Sarah Granger is currently a Project Director for the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, based in Palo Alto, California. She writes articles for Security Focus and is a member of the USACM Public Policy Committee.

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