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Internet voting way too risky, say experts

Phil Martinez stands at a voting booth at the old Wheeland school house to vote in a primary, on January 21, 2012 in Little Mountain, S.C. Would more people vote if they could do so online?

Every time an election rolls around, you hear about some pitifully low percentage of people who actually bother to go to the polling place and cast a ballot. At the same time, one can’t help notice the decline in many bricks and mortar retail stores and the attendant growth of online shopping. So why not put two and two together here? Why not vote over the Internet? Skip all that hassle of looking up where you’re supposed to vote, getting there, parking, waiting in line. Just log on, in your pajamas if you want, and cast a ballot the same way you would order some shoes.

“It would be something that would be more convenient for voters, you could just do it from the privacy of your own home,” says J. Alex Halderman, Assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. “That has the potential to increase voter turnout, which is a very good thing. But, the problem is internet voting presents very serious security challenges that we don't know how to solve, and might not know how to solve anytime soon.”

Halderman knows about those security problems first hand. A couple years ago the District of Columbia was trying out Internet voting and invited hackers to try busting into the system. Halderman and his students took them up on it. “We started about 48 hours prior to when the system was going to go online. By time it was ready to go online, two days later, we had enough information to allow us to completely alter the outcome of the election,” he says.

But people shop online all the time without having their credit cards stolen. Why should voting be any more dangerous? “Superficially, a voting transaction looks a lot like a financial transaction online, but in the back, they are fundamentally different,” says David Jefferson. He’s a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chairman of Verified Voting, an election watchdog group. “In the financial world, transactions can almost always be reversed. Merchandise can be returned, money can be returned, and transactions can be voided. It's impossible to void a voting transaction, and so that means you have to engineer a voting system up front so that it's invulnerable to any kind of failures. Well, this is beyond our ability to do.”

At a conference last week, Jefferson urged an immediate halt on Internet voting, including filling out a ballot, taking a picture of it, and emailing it in “I have to say that email voting, which is legal at least for some voters in 33 states, is by far the worst form of voting,” he says, “because email is not even transmitted encrypted, it's transmitted in the clear, and so anyone can read those ballots, or substitute ballots for the ones voted, and no one will ever know.”

Jefferson says paper ballots can be tampered with too but a hacker online can create a larger scale of problem. Alex Halderman says think of it this way: “In a time when Google, Twitter, and the Pentagon are facing hacking attempts every day and are not successfully defending against some of them, there's just no way that tiny municipalities running election systems across the country are going to get Internet voting security right.”

Also in this program, the true promise of technology has been realized. Scientists in Japan have developed the Speech Jammer, an appliance specially built to make people shut up.

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About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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