• United States

E-voting security analyses

Jan 30, 20033 mins

* Others examine e-voting's security implications

Today, I’d like to summarize some key analyses of the security issues surrounding remote voting via the Internet.

In a July 2002 article posted on the BBC Web site, commentator Bill Thompson argues that the vulnerabilities of any e-voting system built in the next few years should preclude any use of such insecure technology. He writes that the consequences of fraud would be so serious that large amounts of investment would be profitable if they swayed the direction of an election.

“If we all use trusted processors then why not set up a production line to manufacture your own hacked chips?” he writes. “It would only cost a few tens of millions of euros. If all code has to be signed by some digital authority, why not spend a few million bribing the senior staff?”

A much longer and more detailed analysis of e-voting comes from the respected scientist Avi Rubin of AT&T Labs. Rubin neatly summarizes the issues as follows (I have added the asterisks as bullets and slightly changed the punctuation):

“There are many aspects of elections besides security that bring this type of voting into question. The primary ones are: 

* Coercibility – the danger that outside of a public polling place, a voter could be coerced into voting for a particular candidate.

* Vote selling – the opportunity for voters to sell their vote.

* Vote solicitation – the danger that outside of a public polling place, it is much more difficult to control vote solicitation by political parties at the time of voting.

* Registration – the issue of whether or not to allow online registration, and if so, how to control the level of fraud.”

Rubin then discusses in some detail how programmatic attacks (viruses, worms, or denial-of-service attacks) could easily alter election results. Just imagine the consequences of, say, carefully written Trojan horse programs, targeting denial-of-service attacks on particular precincts on election day. Rubin writes, “In some close campaigns, even an untargeted attack that changes the vote by one percentage point could sway the election.”

According to the notes in the source HTML for the document, that sentence was written a few weeks before the contested U.S. presidential election of 2000. I strongly recommend Rubin’s paper as foundation reading for anyone interested in e-voting.

Finally, I direct your attention to the immensely valuable annotated bibliography on electronic voting prepared by Rebecca Mercuri, professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College. Mercuri has a distinguished record of contributions to the technical analysis of electronic voting; her Web site (see below) has many pages of news, essays, pointers to other e-voting sites, lists of her own and other scholarly works on the subject, and even pointers to e-voting humor.

I hope that these articles will increase readers’ interest in the trustworthiness of e-voting and that some of you will be able to contribute to a more informed discussion of this critically important issue in the future of representative democracy. I’m sure that I will be hearing from e-voting technology vendors clamoring for attention; if possible, I’ll write a follow-up column with some of their remarks.