Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A seductively bad idea

Wired News has an article by Keith Axline on proponents of voting by Internet. He is careful to mention the known drawbacks, and to quote the most prominent opponents. However, this is one of those quasi-balanced "he said, she said" presentations that makes no attempt to distinguish well-grounded claims from wishful thinking.

If you are willing to evaluate the arguments yourself, but have somehow not previously been exposed to this issue, you may find this article to be a useful survey.
In the wake of yet another election marred by technical glitches, critics of electronic voting machines are repeating their call to restore old-fashioned paper to the increasingly computerized election process.

But a smaller, quieter group is convinced the real solution lies in the other direction. Now is the time, they say, to make elections completely electronic, and allow voters to cast their ballots from home, over the internet...

If it seems insane to put democracy's most crucial function on wires shared by viruses and spam, consider that it's already happening...

... Internet voting is considered heresy in security circles, where the concept has been repeatedly and violently pilloried since at least 2000. If American voters are not ready to trust Diebold, are they ready to vote for president using their Windows machines? ...

Skeptics dismiss claims of past online voting successes, saying the elections officials evaluating those elections aren't qualified to pronounce them a security success. They point to four major breakdowns in any internet voting scheme that they claim are intractable:
  • General purpose PCs are inherently insecure and vulnerable to viruses and other attacks that could compromise votes without detection.
  • Denial of service attacks could disenfranchise voters.
  • Database hacks could change vote tallies.
  • Putting voting into the home would destroy poll-booth privacy, exposing voters to intimidation and bribery.
"The folks who decide to use (these systems) don't understand the technology," said David Wagner, an associate professor in the Computer Science Division at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in computer security. "They don't know how to distinguish between good marketing and good technology." ...

Despite early setbacks, the idea isn't going away easily and it promises to grow in power as more countries give it a try as a way out of the failures of the current systems...

The main chokepoint for secure internet voting is the vulnerability of the home PC. The scientists interviewed for this article agreed that a closed set-top box would address many of their concerns, though not all of them.

Pushing hard-coded voting appliances into American homes wouldn't be easy, but the functionality could be built into other devices, with tight controls over what software can run on the box, and how the code is audited and authenticated. Consider the brainpower that went into making HDTV video resistant to high-quality copying. Apply that, under strict government regulations, to making secure home voting hardware, and voting machinery could be embedded in your television, Tivo or cable box in time for the 2010 midterms...
Anyone who seriously believes that HDTV isn't going to be hacked might find this almost plausible.

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