The Age of E-Voting; Collecting Votes on the Web and with Electronic Touch Screens May Invite Election Tampering by Hackers. but Governments Seem Determined to Go Ahead with It

By Sennott, Sarah; Piore, Adam et al. | Newsweek International, April 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Age of E-Voting; Collecting Votes on the Web and with Electronic Touch Screens May Invite Election Tampering by Hackers. but Governments Seem Determined to Go Ahead with It


Sennott, Sarah, Piore, Adam, Levy, Steven, Valla, Marie, Ulick, Josh, Newsweek International


Byline: Sarah Sennott and Adam Piore, With Steven Levy and Marie Valla, Graphic by Josh Ulick

It's an enticing vision. sipping a Margarita on your luxury yacht, you run through the choices in your head one last time while scanning the idyllic Caribbean waters all around you. Then you turn to the Wi-Fi laptop sitting on your knees and get ready to vote for your favorite slate of parliamentary candidates. You log onto a dedicated Web site, using the ID code you received by mail before leaving port. An electronic ballot form appears on your screen, and, after you choose your candidates, the system asks for confirmation. The vote is then recorded, encrypted and sent back to the server. You've done your democratic duty.

Europe has big plans for e-voting--new systems that would allow everyone from vacationers to military troops to participate in democracy from remote locales via the Internet. The British government, which saw the lowest voter turnout in 90 years (59 percent) in 2001, has already devoted 30 million pounds to beef up e-voting capabilities, and has run dozens of trials in local-council elections. In April more than 9,000 e-voters will cast ballots over the Internet in Geneva, Switzerland, the first step in a plan to wire the entire country by next year. Meanwhile, the European Union has funded a 3.2 million euro, three-year pilot program to use e-voting in three local elections, one in France and the other two in Germany and in Sweden. More than 1 million Estonians will be ready to vote via the Internet in 2006 local elections.

But there's a wrinkle in all these ambitious plans: e-voting is far from foolproof. "The people managing these systems don't know anything about computer security," warns Jason Kitcat, an e-government expert at the University of Sussex, England, who spent three years designing a computer voting system before abandoning the project out of security concerns. "They are politicians wanting to look tech savvy."

Europe's e-voting revolution stands in stark contrast to the approach of the United States, which has more reason than many to modernize. Antiquated balloting systems in Florida, after all, delayed the results of the 2000 presidential election for weeks--and left clouds of suspicion over the results. Originally, the U.S. government planned to allow up to a million armed-forces members and experts to cast their votes for the next president via the Web. But they scrapped the plans earlier this year after a study of the program found it rife with vulnerabilities. For one thing, investigators said, a solitary hacker could paralyze the system by flooding it with Internet traffic--a so-called denial-of-service attack.

So what do those pushing e-voting in Europe have to say in response? "Confidence in the voting system has been shaken in the U.S.," says Michael Chevallier, of the Geneva State Chancellor's office, which is heading up e-voting efforts in Switzerland. "Here we are fortunate that people trust the voting authorities." As in the United States, Chevallier and his co-workers plan to run scores of tests using hackers to reveal potential vulnerabilities, hoping to fix them before the first vote is cast. That's not enough to satisfy some critics. "No matter how many algorithms you put in [the system], it still is not safe," scoffs Kitcat, noting that denial-of-service attacks have penetrated dozens of seemingly secure Web sites in the past. Most people in Europe "think Internet voting doesn't stand a chance," says Rene Luyckx, CEO of the Belgium division of IT behemoth Steria. "In Belgium we are very paranoid about security and voting."

Privacy is another concern. The U.S. study warned that e-voting systems still don't do enough to protect voter secrecy, leaving voters open to intimidation. What if, for instance, a politically connected boss forced his employees to vote for a favorite candidate in front of him on their screens? To counter the possibility of such coercion, Estonians will be able to log back on an unlimited number of times and change their vote anonymously or walk into a polling station and cancel their e-vote.

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