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Internet Voting Raises Security Concerns

Researchers say fair and valid vote totals will be impossible with online balloting

George V. Hulme

January 23, 2004

3 Min Read

Michigan Democrats have been casting votes in their Feb. 7 presidential caucus over the Internet for more than two weeks. But last week, a group of computer-science researchers issued a report that says the very concept of Internet voting should be abandoned because of security concerns.

The researchers called on the federal government and the military to end a plan to allow absentee voting over the Internet by military personnel and U.S. citizens overseas because security weaknesses in software applications and the Internet itself make it impossible to ensure a fair and valid vote count. The scientists who wrote the report are David Wagner from the University of California at Berkeley, Avi Rubin from Johns Hopkins University, David Jefferson from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and technology policy consultant. The first use of Internet voting took place in a Democratic presidential primary in Arizona nearly four years ago.

The Department of Defense's Secure Electronic and Voting Experiment, or Serve, is designed to make it easier for U.S. citizens overseas to cast absentee ballots. Overseas voters are among the most disenfranchised, with up to 30% of absentee ballots going uncounted for a variety of reasons. Serve is part of the department's Federal Voting Assistance Program.

The risks of Internet voting are overblown, says Meg McLaughlin, president of Accenture's eDemocracy Services, which helped to develop Serve. McLaughlin says Serve is a limited experiment to better understand and test Internet voting and that roughly 100,000 of the 6 million U.S. overseas citizens eligible to vote are expected to use the system to participate in the general election this year. The Serve system is undergoing testing and certification, she says, and won't be placed into service until that process is complete.

"This system is highly secure and we're extremely confident with it," McLaughlin says. "Our company name is on it."

However, the researchers say security vulnerabilities could jeopardize the privacy of Internet voters and make it impossible to verify vote totals. They also allege that cast votes could be altered. Their report says the Serve system is vulnerable to the wide spectrum of attacks that are launched against business-technology systems every day, including insider abuse, denial-of-service attacks, and spoofing, as well as virus attacks aimed at the PCs of Internet voters. They also say such a system could make it easier for a voter to sell his credentials and right to vote to another person.

One of the primary flaws, the researchers say, is that the Serve system provides no paper trail that can be audited to confirm the final vote should the system come under attack, or even to refute claims that the system was compromised.

"The vulnerabilities we describe cannot be fixed by design or bug fixes to Serve," the report states. "These vulnerabilities are fundamental in the architecture of the Internet and of the PC hardware and software that is ubiquitous today."

Some computer security consultants agree that there are big risks to widespread Internet voting. "Internet systems are extremely difficult to secure, as evidenced by the never-ending stream of computer vulnerabilities and the widespread effect of Internet worms and viruses," says Bruce Schneier, a founder and chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. "It might be convenient to vote from your home computer, but it would also open new opportunities for people to play 'Hack the Vote.'"

About the Author(s)

George V. Hulme


An award winning writer and journalist, for more than 20 years George Hulme has written about business, technology, and IT security topics. He currently freelances for a wide range of publications, and is security blogger at InformationWeek.com.

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